18 May 2023

Auckland Philharmonia: Dragspil

From Music Alive, 8:00 pm on 18 May 2023

Scottish accordionist James Crabb brings the concerto New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell wrote for him to the country for its first performance here.

Also the Auckland Philharmonia plays works by Sibelius and Elgar. Luke Dollman conducts.

Accordion player James Crabb poses with his instrument on the stage of Auckland Town Hall

James Crabb Photo: RNZ/Tim Dodd

Interview with James Crabb about Dragspil


"The form advances as a free poem, like something dimly visible in the distance, containing references, whisper and small emphases." So wrote Finnish composer and musicologist Erkki Salmenhaara of The Bard, described by some as an exercise in tonal exploration.

It was composed by Sibelius in 1913 on the back of a disappointing reception to his 4th Symphony and though The Bard is diminutive in length (running at about 8 minutes) it proved an important gateway between the composer’s early and late styles.

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Lyell CRESSWELL: Dragspil

A concerto for accordion and orchestra, Dragspil was commissioned for the BBC Proms in 1995. Sadly, Cresswell died in 2022 and so the premiere of his composition in his own country happens without him.

The title is Icelandic for accordion. In a tribute to Cresswell on her website Five Lines, Elizabeth Kerr quoted the composer’s description of the work’s structure: "The overall shape of the piece is in folds like the bellows of the accordion. Perhaps this form could be likened to the use of tmesis – splitting the syllables of a compound word by inserting another. So a more illuminating version of the title might have been Drag-bloody-spil."

Cresswell was based in Scotland from the 1970s which is where James Crabb, hails from. One of the leading accordion exponents globally, he’s now based in Australia. It was Crabb for whom this work was written and he performed the premiere back in the 90s.

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attributed Friedemann STICKLE: Da Trowie Burn

An encore performed by James Crabb – his version of a traditional fiddle tune from the Shetland Islands.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

ELGAR: Symphony No 1

Elgar had wrestled with the idea of the symphony for some time, placing the form on a lofty pedestal. The year before he began this work he gave a lecture in which he proclaimed the symphony-without-a-programme: "the highest development of art… Perhaps the form is somewhat battered by the ill-usage of its admirers but when the looked-for genius comes, it may be absolutely revived."

No pressure then… and no wonder he was already 50 before he got down to work on his first symphony.

In a country taunted by Germany as "a land without music", the pressure to stake a serious musical claim in the symphonic realm was intense. At the first rehearsal in late 1908, the conductor Hans Richter (also the work’s dedicatee) led with a strong opener and a touch of patriotic appeal: "Gentlemen, now let us rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country."

Thankfully, the symphony’s premiere was greeted with high praise - Elgar was called to the stage five times, so thunderous was the applause and there almost a sense of relief in the reviewers’ delight.

The Morning Post wrote: "This is a work for the future, and will stand as a legacy for coming generations; in it are the loftiness and nobility that indicate a masterpiece."

The Evening Standard said: "Here we have the true Elgar — strong, tender, simple, with a simplicity bred of inevitable expression. ... The composer has written a work of rare beauty, sensibility, and humanity, a work understandable of all."

For a composer who loved burying riddles and clues through his music he managed to keep any hints of meaning about his first symphony to himself, stating implacably: "There is no program beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity and a massive hope in the future."

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Recorded by RNZ Concert in Auckland Town Hall, 18 May 2023
Producer: Tim Dodd
Engineer: Adrian Hollay