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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Falstaff, Symphonic Study Op.68 (1913)
Romance for bassoon and orchestra Op.62 (1909-10)
Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85 (1918-19)
Smoking Cantata (1919)
Andrew Shore (baritone)
Graham Salvage (bassoon)
Heinrich Schiff (cello)
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Recorded in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 21-22 July 2003 (Falstaff, Romance) and BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 11-12 October 2003 (Concerto, Cantata)
HALLÉ CD HLL 7505 [69’42]

 

With upwards of a dozen highly recommendable Falstaffs in the catalogue, and nearly twice that for the Cello Concerto, this latest instalment in the Hallé’s ‘Elgar Edition’ enters very crowded waters. Apart from some minor quibbles, it can be counted a success, though whether it will displace your favourites is another matter.

The great symphonic study, Falstaff, has been exceptionally lucky on disc. From the composer’s own memorable EMI reading, through those by Barbirolli, Handley, Mackerras and Rattle, the collector is spoilt for choice. Mark Elder brings his considerable theatrical experience to bear on what is Elgar’s most programmatic work, and the result is refreshingly direct, invigorating and characterful. Above all, Elder helps the listener to visualize the story behind the many incidents and his reading, whilst never sounding rushed (Mackerras is nearer Elgar’s suggested thirty minutes) constantly leads the ear on to the next section. Some find the work Elgar’s most Straussian composition, a sort of Don Quixote meets Ein Heldenleben, and Elder seems to agree, with moments of great swagger and rumbustiousness. The very opening is a case in point, with a wonderfully cohesive Hallé articulating the unison downward figure with great aplomb. Elder puts on some extra minutes by relaxing in certain passages (notably the moving ending, ‘Falstaff’s Death’) where Elgar himself (and Mackerras) really keeps things moving along. However, with such good playing and wide-ranging recording, he can be forgiven odd indulgences. Overall this is a very impressive account.

Likewise, the Cello Concerto is strongly characterized, with a ripely romantic reading of the solo part balanced out by a tightly structured general approach. This account is certainly more impressive than Schiff’s earlier, 1982 Philips recording with Neville Marriner and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where the blandness of both soloist and orchestra stopped the reading taking wing. The older Schiff seems to have found a ‘voice’ for this piece now, and his deeply-felt playing has spirit, tenderness and fire in equal measure. If you like a more classically balanced approach (like Tortelier’s 1954 account with Sargent) this may not be for you, although Schiff’s big-boned performance is, as mentioned earlier, nicely countered by Elder’s taut conducting.

The Romance for bassoon may be familiar to some in its arrangement for cello and orchestra, but it is nice to hear it in its original form particularly when the playing is as persuasive and free of mannerism as Graham Salvage’s. The Smoking Cantata is a musical joke, Elgar’s response to being chided for smoking at a friend’s house. It consists of 51 seconds of heavily orchestrated pseudo-Wagner which accompany the words ‘kindly, kindly do not smoke in the hall or stairs’. It is good fun, but hardly likely to sway you towards the disc, even with its ‘premiere recording’ status.

The recording is very full bodied, though I was bothered by the audible edit points between tracks (a small click) that ought not to be present. It’s particularly noticeable in the quieter passages of Falstaff, though I was using headphones at the time. The brief liner notes are by veteran expert Michael Kennedy, and as is the modern way, the user is directed towards the dedicated website for more information on the music and performances.

Tony Haywood



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