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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Visions of Elgar

CD 1: Sir Malcolm Sargent [77:52]
Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 in D op. 39/1 (1901) [07:12] (1)
Variations on an Original Theme Ė "Enigma" op. 36 (1898-99) [30:23] (2)
Pomp and Circumstance March no. 4 in G op. 39/4 (1907) [05:24] (3)
The Dream of Gerontius op. 38 (1900): Sanctis fortis [10:09] (4), Softly and gently [06:06] (5)
Imperial March op. 32 (1896-7) [04:30] (6)
I sing the birth (1928) [04:32] (7)
The Kingdom op. 51 (1901-6): The Sun goeth down [08:46] (8)
Isobel Baillie (soprano) (8), Marjorie Thomas (contralto) (5), Richard Lewis (tenor) (4), Huddersfield Choral Society (4, 5), Royal Choral Society (7), Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (4, 5), London Symphony Orchestra (1, 2, 3, 6), Philharmonia Orchestra (8)/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. 10 December 1928, live (7), 28 August 1947 (8), 2 March 1953 (1, 3, 6), 5-7 March 1953 (2), 4-6 October 1954 (4, 5), Huddersfield Town Hall (4, 5), Kingsway Hall, London (1, 2, 3, 6, 8), Royal Albert Hall, London (7)
CD 2: Sir Adrian Boult [72:28]
In the South op. 50 (1903) [19:43]
Symphony no. 2 in E flat major op. 63 (1910-11) [52:45]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 23 March 1944, Corn Exchange, Bedford, live broadcast (op. 50), 3-4, 25 August, 10 October 1944, Great Hall of Bedford School (op. 63)
CD 3: Concertos [72:19]
Violin Concerto in B minor op. 61 (1909-11) [45:26]*
Cello Concerto in E minor op. 85 (1919) [26:33]**
Alfredo Campoli (violin)*, Anthony Pini (cello)**, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult*, Eduard van Beinum**
rec. 14 May 1949, 12 April 1950**, 1954*, Kingsway Hall, London
CD 4: Eduard van Beinum, Anthony Collins and Elgarís Visions of Handel and Bach [72:20]
Cockaigne op. 40 (1900-1) [13:09] (1)
Falstaff op. 68 [34:11] (2)
Introduction and Allegro op. 47 [13:37] (3)
Handel arr. Elgar

Overture in D minor from Chandos Anthem no. 1 (1923) [04:13] (4)
Bach arr. Elgar

Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 [07:01] (5)
London Philharmonic Orchestra (1), London Symphony Orchestra (2, 4, 5), Strings of the New Symphony Orchestra (3)/Eduard van Beinum (1), Anthony Collins (2, 3), Albert Coates (4, 5)
rec. 1-12 October 1928 (5), 17 October 1928 (4), 13 May 1949 (1), 31 March, 1 April 1952 (3), 22-5 February 1954 (2), Kingsway Hall, London
BEULAH 14PD15 [4 CDs: 77:52 + 72:28 + 72:19 + 72:20]




The title of this set puzzles me. Under the title of "The Visionaries", the booklet gives brief biographies of the artists taking part, including the two choral societies but excluding Marjorie Thomas. However, it is clear from the cover that the primary concern is with four conductors Ė Boult, Collins, van Beinum and Sargent.

In my book, the word "visionary", applied to a conductor, means an artist who holds constantly before him a particular philosophical, spiritual or metaphysical view of the world, which he seeks to realize in his music-making. In the post-war years the most obviously "visionary" conductor must surely have been Sergiu Celibidache. Of the conductors who have recorded Elgar fairly extensively, Sinopoli, like him or lump him, is probably the nearest that fits the bill. Of the "historical" Elgarians, those with roots going back to Elgarís own days, the absent Barbirolli, with his intensely individual approach, was surely more of a visionary than the essentially practical musicians we have here.

Of course, you could argue that Boultís concern with the overall architecture of the music and his idealistic search for the composerís own style were visionary in their way; that van Beinum was in a similar mould; and that Sargentís visions of his own popular success were expertly realized. Nobody seems to know much about Collins. But a musician who worked his way up from orchestral playing through film work Ė as composer and conductor Ė must surely have been, above all, practical.

The introduction by Barry Coward, proprietor of Beulah, seems to confuse the word "vision" with that of "view".

The revival of Elgar that started in the late 1960s brought forth interpretations that visualised Elgar as a romantic Edwardian. The artists in this set, all from the generation after Elgar, had a different vision, one of an athletic composer.

But surely this was because they were not visionaries.

Better, then, to take this set simply as a useful grouping of historical and semi-historical Elgar recordings, some well-known, some already available from Beulah and other companies in alternative couplings, some much rarer. We are not told the provenance of the Boult "In the South" and this may be a first issue.

SARGENT

Sargent is a figure everyone knows "about". There has not been much systematic exploration of his recorded legacy. The First Pomp and Circumstance March has a confident strut and clean articulation. The "Land of Hope and Glory" theme is given its patriotic head in a way Boult avoided, at least on his Readersí Digest/Chesky recording, which is about a minute quicker. Iíd say Sargent would be preferable only if you want to sing along. The same approach to the fourth March bothered me less, maybe because the big theme itself is a mite less hackneyed. The performance of the Imperial March actually manages to avoid over-egging the pudding. I donít recollect having heard this piece before. I should say it is the sort of piece you could hear a good many times without remembering that youíd heard it before.

The premises might seem to exist for a stiff-necked "Enigma". Sargentís heartfelt handling of the theme and first variation quickly set the mind at rest. We find in "Nimrod" that he did not have that sense of line over a long span that characterizes the really great conductor and we hear in a few of the brilliant variations that the LSO was not then the superb band it later became. On the other hand the finale shows that he could be a pretty inspiring presence on the rostrum at his finest. Best of all are the several variations which depend on flexibly flowing tempi and a warm mix of colours. In particular, the two last before the finale, with their natural rubato, are equal to any I have heard. There is considerable distortion at climaxes and it sounds to me as if a rather worn copy of the LP has been used for the transfer. This would prevent me going back too often to what is actually a highly rewarding performance. I wonder if Decca themselves, with the original tapes, could offer something better? I note that, as late as 1967, EMG were still listing the Ace of Clubs incarnation of this recording with their maximum two stars. Even allowing for the ears of forty years ago, it seems to me they must have heard something better than we have here. Sargent also set down a later stereo Enigma with the Philharmonia for HMV.

As a footnote to these comments, I should add that I listened first on headphones. After hearing the older van Beinum recordings on loudspeakers and not finding similar distortion I re-sampled the passages of "Enigma" which I remembered as most compromised, this time on loudspeakers. Generally, the recording is much more enjoyable in this form, but distortion is nonetheless present, at the climax of "Nimrod" for example. Whereas I listened to the Campoli/Boult Violin Concerto for the first time on headphones and had no problems with the recording.

Sargentís first Gerontius is perhaps the recording of his which has, more than any other, survived the test of time. It is considered the nearest in spirit to the version Elgar himself might have given us Ė he only left extracts. The post-war remake was found relatively disappointing. All the same, the excerpts here show Sargent well in control of the ebb and flow of the music.

I daresay one could get involved with Lewisís Gerontius if one followed it from the beginning. Plunging in at "Sanctus fortis" I was unhappy with his portamentos and his high-falutiní upper-class vowels. The voice, though easily produced, does not have great body in fortes. A voice from other times, you may say, except that a sample of the recently-surfaced Heddle Nash/Boult fragment on "Elgar and his Interpreters" does not reveal vowels we would not expect to hear today. Nashís voice had a more confident ring to it and a greater expressive range. Furthermore, both artists are living really dangerously, tottering on the brink in the way Lewis and Sargent are not.

"Softly and gently" gave me far more pleasure. Though less touted, Thomas has a rich, evenly produced voice and her pronunciation contains no features that would surprise us today. Flexibly assisted by Sargent, she gives a perfect account. Not, though, an experience to blazon itself on our memories. For many listeners, entire phrases of this music have become inseparable from the way Janet Baker sang them in the Barbirolli recording. If Thomas does not penetrate our consciousness at this level she is nonetheless far more than coldly correct.

"I sing the birth" was written for the Royal Choral Society. The present performance, recorded live Ė with a big cough to prove it Ė was its second. As the note-writer points out, Sargent improved the level of the Royal Choral Society considerably over the following years and this recording must be considered merely a historical curiosity. Any musical merit possessed by the piece itself is certainly not evident here, where it sounds dolefully un-Christmassy.

I appreciated the poetry with which Sargent conducted the introduction to "The Sun goeth down". The ensuing problem is probably mine. Isobel Baillie is one of those names that British connoisseurs like to mention with baited breath. The trouble is, she was an exponent of what Anna Russell cruelly described as the "pure white, or Nymphs and Shepherds style of singing". I could only grit my teeth and thank my lucky stars that no one would sing like that today. Not everything was golden in the golden age.

BOULT

Boultís last recording of "In the South" comes from an LP of the overtures that some Elgarians found disappointing. Iíve never been among them. I love that late "In the South" for its flow and flexibility, everything bathed in Corot-like sunset colours. I can quite well hear that this is achieved at some cost to sheer precision but this has never worried me, and for me the sunset glow more than makes up for any lessening in dynamism. Those who donít agree should be well content with the new discovery which, given the date and the circumstances, came as a heartfelt tribute to Italy, where the Fascist dictatorship had fallen a few months earlier and which was therefore a friend once more. The basic interpretation isnít far different Ė five seconds shorter in 1944 Ė but there is more obvious conductorial control. In later years Boult was inclined to concentrate on the general line and spirit and not worry about the odd fuzzy attack. Back in 1944 he was still taking his responsibilities seriously as orchestral trainer and things like sharp accents or brilliant passage work would be rehearsed for their own sake as well as their place in the overall view. This would not be enough to make me sacrifice the later version in excellent stereo, but some may feel differently. A worthwhile addition to our knowledge of the conductor, in any case.

I wrote recently about the late "In the South" and the last of Boultís five versions of Elgar 2. Again, my contention that the latter is one of the great Boult records is not shared by all Elgarians. The differences are felt from the start. In the late version we can hear how the sinking bass-line is undermining the imperialist sentiments even in the opening bars. In 1944 Boult gives the sheer exuberance of the writing its head, and then is masterly in portraying the gradual retreat into private meditation. We can say that the younger Boult brought out the extremes in the music, and then balanced them against each other, while the older Boult sought out the interrelations between the ideas. Let us remember, though, that the "younger Boult" was already separated by nearly a quarter of a century from the famous 1920 performance that put the symphony on the map, and was within five years of his unceremonious pensioning-off by those-powers-that-be at the BBC. So the 1944 performance could already be a midway point in a much longer process.

I have never subscribed to the view that Boult gives us a cushioned view of this music. Some of the more dramatic writing, in the scherzo for instance, is quite brutally violent in 1944 while the passages of dejection and withdrawal are poignantly achieved. But then my reactions towards Elgarís own recording are more ambivalent than that of many of my colleagues. Those who feel that Boult went to far in balancing the disparate elements in the 1970s may wonder if the ideal solution is not to be found in his middle recordings. Unfortunately I only know the third, set down with the Scottish National Orchestra in the early 1960s and compromised by scrappy playing, especially during the first ten minutes or so. I do not know the highly-regarded Pye version from the 1950s or the Lyrita recording which is now available again. So perhaps I shall be returning to this fascinating subject.

For those who choose violin concertos by the conductor Ė hardly the best system, but a conductor can make or break this work Ė this is Boultís earliest version and the one to have. Menuhin in the 1960s was unable to recapture the spirit of his youthful performance with Elgar himself. As for Ida Haendel in the 1970s, it was a bit late in the day for both of them.

As in the symphony ten years earlier, Boult was ready to provide blazing energy but also to chart the withdrawals into private meditation. Just to give one example of his perceptive conducting, note how, in the second theme of the first movement, the inner string lines come to the fore when they move, then retreat into the general texture.

Alfredo Campoli was a much-loved artist who set down most of the standard repertoire for Decca during the 1950s. His unfailingly warm, sympathetic tone and phrasing are at one with Elgarís romantic yearnings. He also provides brilliance, though if itís quick-fire virtuosity you want then there are those who deliver more. With its overriding sweetness this may be the closest we have to the Kreisler recording that was never made. For this, and the authority of the conductor, it is a worthy companion to the first complete version, by Sammons and Wood, and the famous Menuhin/Elgar. As for later traversals, Heifetz is always Heifetz and, from the later LP era, many have a special affection for Hugh Bean with Sir Charles Groves. With the CD age this work became fully international and, if you have a favourite violinist, he/sheís probably recorded it.

All the same, I feel about this rather as I do about the Pini Cello Concerto. As a statement of Elgarian basics it still stands above the crowd. The recording still sounds remarkably lifelike, too. The strings have brilliance without artificiality and the brass bray trenchantly. Strange that it should be so much better than the Sargent "Enigma" of the previous year.

Eduard van Beinum, Anthony Collins, Albert Coates

I have already discussed the Beulah disc devoted to van Beinumís complete Elgar recordings. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the two major works again and see no reason to revise my earlier comments. I wondered, this time round, if the recording had not been tweaked a little too much for brilliance. In places it sounds incredibly good, at others it has a paint-stripping quality. It seems to depend on which frequency the main melodic interest happens to be in. The trouble with tweaking old recordings is that improving one frequency area often creates problems in another. Better too little than too much, therefore. Still, the main thing is that these classic performances can still be heard.

Anthony Collins is perhaps the figure here whose musical profile is least clear. A pupil of Holst, an orchestral player who rose to lead the LSO violas in the 1930s before turning to conducting and a regular composer/conductor of film music in the RKO studios during the war, he was nothing if not a skilled professional. On Decca, his cycle of Sibelius symphonies was the first to be generally available and has maintained a high reputation over the years. He recorded Delius more extensively than anyone except Beecham in the 1950s. His Elgar recordings, which also include the Serenade, have already been issued by Beulah Ė 1PD15 Ė and were mainstays of the early LP catalogue. There were also a couple of pieces by Vaughan Williams, he accompanied Gervase de Peyer in his first recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Peter Katin in the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos. A coupling of Mozart Symphonies used to be available on Classics for Pleasure.

Of the two performances here I was most impressed by the Introduction and Allegro. It avoids extremes but it shows a rare understanding of how the different ideas flow one from another Ė no doubt this was what made his Sibelius so successful. Most performances prefer to emphasize the contrasts in this piece, so Collins has something attractively individual to offer.

His Falstaff is generally excellent, too. In the second dream episode I found him very ordinary compared with Boultís quite rapt handling in his last recording, which offers pure magic. I happen to like the sunset glow with which Boult invests the entire work in that recording, but some Elgarians point to a shortage of vitality and some scrappy ensemble. I feel that many other moments could be quoted Ė rowdy ones as well as poetic ones Ė where Boult even in his last years shows the hand of a master where Collins is just very good. I do admit that immediately after the second Interlude, Collins is more urgent in Falstaffís last fruitless dash to London, only to be rejected by the newly crowned King. It is in any case another useful piece of basic Elgar conducting, well worth hearing. For many, Barbirolli reigns supreme in this particular piece.

Of the two baroque arrangements, the Handel was new to me, while I knew the Bach from Boultís recording, which originally shared an LP with Falstaff and The Sanguine Fan. Coatesís characteristic zest is much in evidence and I could prefer his fugue to Boultís, while Boult finds a more measured nobility in the Fantasia. But if you want to hear these sumptuous baroque arrangements, you will surely want to hear them in all their orchestral glory, in which case Boultís 1970s stereo would seem the very minimum acceptable.

In conclusion, I found a great deal to interest me in this collection, but I am left wondering quite who it is aimed at. The experienced Elgarian will have a lot of the material already, much of it from Beulah themselves Ė they have previously issued Boultís Second Symphony coupled with Sospiri and the Gerontius Prelude (3PD15) and Campoliís Violin Concerto with the Mendelssohn (4PD10). As a collection of basic Elgar performances for a first-time collector with undemanding equipment, the absence of the 1st Symphony and the 78 provenance of several of the recordings is a considerable limitation. However, if you have collected the major Elgar works in recent recordings and are wondering how an earlier generation of interpreters approached his music, well, hereís a good way to find out.

Christopher Howell



 


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