> Edward Elgar - Charles Groves [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Nursery Suite
Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid Op. 42
Severn Suite, Op. 87
Meditation from The Light of Life, Op. 29
Woodland Interlude from Caractacus Op. 35*
Suite from The Crown of India Op. 66*
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves
Recorded in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 2-3 June 1969; *30 June – 1 July 1970
EMI Classics CDZ 5 75294 2 [75’46"]


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The reputation of Sir Charles Groves (1915-1992) seems to have faded somewhat. I think this is a great pity for he made a sterling contribution to post-war British musical life, particularly as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (1951-61) and of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (1963-77). In particular, he promoted much unfamiliar and contemporary music and was an untiring champion of English music. This welcome reissue shows his not inconsiderable credentials as an Elgarian.

Much of the music on the disc might be described as old wine in new bottles for all three suites included here were based by Elgar on earlier sketches for other works or on music written in his very young days. The Severn Suite was all based on early material and was written for the National Brass Band Championships in 1930 as a test piece. Elgar subsequently orchestrated it and it is in that later guise that Groves performs it. I must say that, despite the greater range of colour provided by the full orchestra I prefer the brass band version. In particular I miss the nostalgic sound of the cornets, especially in the fourth movement. However, here the orchestral version receives a strong and forthright performance. Moreover, Groves captures well the atmosphere in the third movement, a slow fugue which represents Worcester Cathedral (Track 12).

The Crown of India suite suits Groves’s style well. It was written in 1912, again drawing on old material, for a masque marking the visit to India by King George V and Queen Mary. The suite which Elgar subsequently drew from this music is not top drawer Elgar but, appropriately, it is full of colour and Groves and his players bring out the colours with relish, for example in the Warrior’s Dance (Track 20). They also bring a suitable delicacy to the Dance of Nautch Girls (Track 18). The dreamy Intermezzo features a finely spun solo from Clifford Knowles, then the RLPO’s long-serving leader. The splendidly extrovert March of the Mogul Emperors (Track 22) has all the swagger one could wish for to end the suite (and the CD).

The Nursery Suite is a beautifully wrought set of miniatures, the chief characteristic of which is an innocent charm. The suite was written in 1930 as a tribute to the Royal Family following the birth of Princess Margaret and for this Elgar drew on some of his juvenilia. The suite is played here with affection and finesse. For instance, there is a lovely flute solo from Atarah Ben-Tovim in the second movement, ‘The Serious Doll’ (Track 2) and the concluding ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Envoy’ (Tracks 7 and 8) are very affecting. The latter features some more fine solo work from Clifford Knowles.

It is particularly interesting to hear the fifth movement, ‘The Wagon (Passes)’, now that Anthony Payne has drawn on this for the conclusion of his elaboration of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony. In his book about the reconstruction (Faber and Faber, 1998) Payne concludes with a touching story. After the première of the reconstructed symphony, among the many letters he received from the public was one from a Mr. Derek Johnstone who related that in 1942 he took an Associated Board piano examination in his home town of Dumfries. The examiner was W. H. Reed, Elgar’s long-time friend and the former leader of the LSO). The non-appearance of the next candidate gave Mr. Johnstone an unexpected opportunity to chat to Reed who talked about Elgar and played over ‘The Wagon (Passes)’ at the piano. The very next day Reed collapsed and died and Mr. Johnstone speculates, probably correctly, that this little piece was the last music by Elgar that Reed ever played.

To return to the music. The disc is completed by three short pieces. The Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid is a magnificent elegy and I’m surprised we don’t hear it more often. Groves and the RLPO play it excellently. The also give a good account of the Woodland Interlude from Caractacus though perhaps their performance does lack the last ounce of subtlety and innocence.

The one disappointment is the Meditation from The Light of Life. This starts a bit too slowly but what really scuppers the performance is the lugubrious speed which Groves adopts at the Piu lento at cue C in the vocal score (Track 15 2’21"). The performance never recovers from this and is ponderous thereafter. Ten years later when Groves came to make a complete recording of the oratorio he did not fall into the same trap and his performance then took 5’53" (exactly the same as Sir Adrian Boult’s performance of the Meditation, just reissued by EMI) compared with the 7’23" he takes on this disc.

However, that’s the only disappointment on what is otherwise a well-played, idiomatic collection which will give much pleasure. The notes are by Michael Kennedy, a guarantee of excellence, and the sound is full and satisfying. EMI have just issued a CD of similar repertoire conducted by Boult but, apart from the Meditation, there are no overlaps whatsoever. I can recommend this confidently, the more so as it is such a good example of the work of Sir Charles Groves. I hope we shall have more reissues of his recordings soon.

John Quinn


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