Piano Quintet (Elgar)
He worked on the Quintet and two other major chamber pieces in the summer of 1918 while staying at Brinkwells near Fittleworth in Sussex. W. H. "Billy" Reed considered that all three were ‘influenced by the quiet and peaceful surroundings during that wonderful summer’.
The Quintet was first performed on 21 May 1919, by the pianist William Murdoch, the violinists Albert Sammons and W. H. Reed, the violist Raymond Jeremy and the cellist Felix Salmond. These players included some of the composer's musical confidantes – Reed worked with him on the Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony, and Salmond worked on the Cello Concerto with him. Albert Sammons later made the first complete recording of the Violin Concerto.
There are three movements:
- Moderato – Allegro
- Andante – Allegro
In performance, the first movement takes about 14 minutes, the adagio a little under 12, and the last movement a little over 10, making this the longest of Elgar’s chamber works.
His wife's first reaction on hearing the three chamber works was 'E. writing wonderful new music', and more than fifty years later The Gramophone agreed: 'Alice Elgar was quite right: it is a new urgency, pointed and refined by the discipline of writing chamber music, a discipline that clearly rejuvenated Elgar's imagination. It is big chamber music, with at times an almost orchestral sonority to it...'
The Quintet was first recorded by Ethel Hobday with the Spencer Dyke Quartet for the National Gramophonic Society in December 1925. Compton Mackenzie suggested that Elgar himself should play the piano for the recording, but the composer refused the invitation replying, "I never play the pianoforte - I scramble through things orchestrally in a way that would madden with envy all existing pianists".
It was subsequently recorded electrically for HMV by Harriet Cohen and the Stratton Quartet at the beginning of October 1933, immediately before the composer became seriously ill. Test pressings were rushed to Elgar's bedside; the pleasure he gained from them inspiring Fred Gaisberg to record the Quintet as a Christmas present to the ailing composer.
The work took some years to establish itself in the repertoire, but in recent years it has been performed and recorded many times.
- In 2003, the BBC Radio 3 ‘Building a Library’ feature recommended a recording by the Sorrel Quartet (Gina McCormack, Catherine Yates, Sarah-Jane Bradley and Helen Thatcher) and Ian Brown on the Chandos label.
- Older recordings include, from the 78 era, the Stratton Quartet/Harriet Cohen version mentioned above, and from the LP years, John Ogdon and the Allegri Quartet, reissued on CD by Dutton and EMI respectively. A recording made c 1963 for Delta Records by the Aeolian Quartet, successor of the Stratton Quartet, includes Watson Forbes (viola) (with Leonard Cassini, piano), a member of the Strattons in the 1933 recording, so that there is a continuity of tradition in this performance.
- Page on the Piano Quintet at Elgar.org
- The Piano Quintet by Edward Elgar Short biography of Elgar, and detailed analysis of the Piano Quintet by James Gwynn Staples.
- Reed, W. H. (1943). Elgar. London: J M Dent. (part of the "Master Musicians" series)
- The Gramophone, June 1986 and January 1994