Young German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt was at the emotional centre of the BBC Philharmonic’s all-Elgar concert in Manchester. An award-winner with a fast-developing global reputation, he made the opening four chords of the Cello Concerto exceptionally dramatic, more immediate than usual, as we were plunged into the composer’s agonised responses to the Great War. This piece would be appropriate for any future concert marking the centenary of the opening of hostilities in 1914, with its elegiac section, its accumulating agitation, its sense of disillusionment following confident statements and its cries of grief. Altstaedt took us with athletic fervour from the raw to the restrained and back, and from hope to desperation. In three years’ time, when there will be a plethora of television programmes about that lousy war and when it was over, I would love to see producers use this piece – and this artist – to go with the poetry and the disturbing black and white photographs.

Nicolas Altstaedt © Marco Borggreve
Nicolas Altstaedt
© Marco Borggreve

The evening began with Elgar sounding like Bach as the brimmingly-jovial Andrew Davies conducted the brief, complex Introduction and Allegro composed for an all-Elgar concert in 1904, with the freshly founded London Symphony Orchestra. Apparently, on that occasion it was minimally-rehearsed and did not make much of an impression, unlike this performance in which full justice was done to a taxing piece which shows just how much Elgar was influenced by Bach’s organ music: the form of a Baroque Prelude and Fugue is reinterpreted, with the strings divided into nine parts. A highlight of the Introduction was the ‘Welsh tune’ , beautifully rendered by a solo viola. Elgar allegedly noted the melody as a ‘distant voice’, heard while on holiday near Cardigan Bay in a tiny village called Llangrannog, though it does not seem to be particularly Welsh. It was heard again in the Allegro and in climactic form at the end of a stunning fugue. This joyful twelve minutes or so remained unperformed for decades, probably because its demands inspired fear. The BBC Phil is full of stout-hearted musicians, so no worry there.

The second half opened with the similarly brief Elegy written in 1909 for the Junior Warden of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, Rev. Robert Haddon, who had suddenly died. Elgar for some reason thought little of it – but it was delicate and heartfelt, an appropriate lead-in for the piece which I suspect most of the audience had come for – Enigma Variations on an Original Theme. The Enigma Variations, a constant staple, were treated with the utmost respect. They were preceded by an amusing explanation from presenter Martin Handley.

I was reminded again of the ‘Englishness’ of Elgar, and about how it is also often pointed out that his main influences came from the Continent, as if a love of Bach, Beethoven or Schumann somehow detracted from the Anglo qualities, but he is distinctly English, and that does not come from drinking Malvern water or the ample period moustache but from his relationship with dogs, with the evidence in the eleventh variation, the one for G.R.S. (George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral), in which the opening bars recall Dan the bulldog falling into the river, swimming upstream and climbing up on to the bank with a yap. This one, inevitably, was pointed up with relish by the presenter and performed with appropriate briskness by the orchestra. The previous variation, to Dorabella, was a pleasure as well, with its whimsical tone and its halting rhythm which hints at the slight stutter of Dora Penny, the attractive young woman with whom Elgar once flirted. I wonder if she thanked him for that. Nimrod, an Adagio so profound that it should have been connected with more than a mere individual, but composed for Elgar’s friend and adviser August Jaeger, was extraordinarily powerful. The orchestra threaded all fourteen together faultlessly, each one given special treatment, each personage given his or her due.

We were given Pomp and Circumstance March Number One as an encore, a guaranteed audience-pleaser, but the overwhelming force of the evening was from that Cello Concerto and its amazing soloist.