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Session report from Munich by Lewis Foreman

Since the Danish record company ClassicO started their 'British Symphonic Collection', featuring the Munich SO conducted by Douglas Bostock, in 1998, six volumes of the series have appeared. On 18 and 19 April a varied team met in Munich to record the seventh volume, which is devoted to unfamiliar music by Elgar. The team included Jiri Gemrot, producer, and Jan Lzicar, engineer, from Prague; Peter Olufsen and Caspar Reiff, ClassicO, from Copenhagen. All was completed with remarkable efficiency and the CD is due to be out by the end of May.

Douglas Bostock is a splendidly efficient conductor at a recording session resolving technical and sessional problems with an enviable fluency in German, Czech and English. The demanding and varied programme was completed in two days, though with only a few minutes to spare.

The programme is: The Wind at Dawn; The Crown of India: 'Hail, Immemorial Ind!' and The Crown of India March; Slow Movement from a Piano Concerto; Polonia; The Empire March; Civic Fanfare (Hereford) for full orchestra; A Voice in the Desert; The Spanish Lady - orchestral suite

Viewed chronologically, the programme sets out with Elgar's first setting of his wife's poetry, the orchestral song The Wind at Dawn (written in 1888 but not orchestrated until 1912). This was a tremendous discovery, really top-line Elgar, in effect a sixth Sea Picture, and gloriously sung by the Danish mezzo-soprano Mette Christina Østergaard; it got the sessions off to a really rousing start. I had not previously heard this song in its orchestral version, and as a last minute addition to the programme (thanks to Barry Collett for the suggestion) it was one of those happy discoveries that transcended all expectations.

Another discovery for most listeners will be what the vocal score calls 'Agra's Song' from Elgar's 'masque' The Crown of India, celebrating the Delhi Durbar in 1912, and written for a music hall programme at the London Coliseum. In fact far more than a song, this 7-minute scena, 'Hail, Immemorial Ind!', takes ideas from the piano piece, In Smyrna, and gives them a quite gorgeous shimmering atmosphere. Here again Mette Christina Østergaard was in her element, with radiant singing commanding the considerable orchestra sound.

I had not attended a recording session in Germany before. Unlike many sessions with British orchestras, when the first read through is the first time the orchestra have seen the music, here the approach was slightly different, for the programme had been rehearsed the day before. Never-the-less, in the UK, though usually remarkable for accuracy and technique, on such occasions one often has a feeling that the players are still exploring the music, which is often sectioned for the actual recording, so that one rarely hears movements played complete. Here we had music to which they were already getting to grips, and the recording consisted of complete performances, which, after a couple of takes, were patched.

This is the first CD in the series to require soloists, and Margaret Fingerhut was the very sympathetic soloist in Percy M Young's performing version of the slow movement of Elgar's Piano Concerto, of which only fragments survive. Percy Young first produced this performing version for Harriet Cohen as long ago as 1957, though then only with string orchestra accompaniment. Later he produced the present more extended version for a concert conducted by Leslie Head, with Leslie Howard as soloist, in 1979. This is a simple movement, a really lovely limpid theme which Margaret Fingerhut played with much sympathy and charm. Readers will recognise the theme from Elgar's own performance as a piano solo in one of his piano improvisations.

Mette Christina Østergaard reappeared in a third item, this time with Peter Hall, speaker or orator, in Elgar's affecting First World War piece A Voice in the Desert. To see the full score of A Voice in the Desert is to realise that Elgar set it in French, there is no English in the full score, and it only appears in the published vocal score - the correct title is Une Voix dans le Désert. However, ClassicO recorded it in English, and Peter Hall (a Brit who has lived long in Denmark, and who some readers may have already discovered as the joint-architect and performer of ClassicO's wonderfully atmospheric CDs of songs from J R R Tolkien's The Lords of the Rings) was the speaker describing the scene along the Yser in 1915. He was remarkably word perfect and sympathetic in his role, which went easily from the start with the minimum of retakes. In many ways this was the discovery of the session.

There were two Elgar reconstructions by Percy M Young, for in addition to the Piano Concerto slow movement, a new orchestral suite from his final version of his performing edition of Elgar's fragmentary opera The Spanish Lady, enables one to traverse all the best tunes - and there are some fine ideas - in the space of twelve minutes or so. Heard like this they make a far stronger impression than in Dr Young's well-known string suite, and were rousingly played.

For the rest of the programme, Bostock generated a splendidly Elgarian energy into the marches (particularly the 'Empire March' from A Pageant of Empire a vigorous quick march, written for the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 which he has started using as an encore) and more so the larger canvas of Polonia, which I heard rehearsed but not the recording.

The Munich SO played consistently well, with some lovely orchestral detailing, boldly articulated heavy brass, and finely taken solos, particularly in the woodwind and horns. Talking to members of the orchestra I was surprised to discover how many are from the UK, but find living and building a career more rewarding in Munich than in British orchestras. This looks like the best volume yet in this enterprising series.

© Lewis Foreman

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