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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Self Banished (1875) [3.54] (1)
Oh, Soft was the Song. Op.59, No.3  (1909) [1.34] (1)
In Moonlight (1904) [2.08] (1)
Pleading. Op. 48, No. 1 (1908) [2.16] (1)
There are Seven That Pull the Thread (1901) [2.11] (1)
Twilight, Op. 59 No. 6 (1909) [2.59] (1)
Sea Pictures (1899) [21.58] (2)
The Wind at Dawn (1888) [2.56] (1)
In the Dawn, Op 41 No. 1 (1902) [2.25] (1)
Speak, Music! Op. 41, No 2 (1902) [2.27] (1)
Dry Those Fair, Those Crystal Eyes (1899) [1.30] (1)
Always and Everywhere (1901) [3.12] (1)
Like to the Damask Rose (1892) [3.38] (2)
Queen Mary’s Song (1887) [3.32] (2)
A Song of Autumn (1892) [3.04] (2)
Come, Gentle Night (1901) [3.04] (2)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano) (1); Konrad Jarnot (baritone) (2); Reinild Mees (piano)
rec. September 2007, Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCSSA27507 [64.11]

 

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I must confess that I have always been in two minds about Elgar’s songs. Though he wrote them for most of his composing life, they do not seem to have been entirely central to his composing. With some composers, even though song is not essential to them, you can sense them pushing and stretching the form, using it as a cauldron of new ideas. Elgar’s songs definitely have far more about them than the usual Edwardian parlour ballads, but only in one or two do we detect the voice of the Elgar familiar from the larger-scale works.

Perhaps one of the problems is that Elgar is writing in English, setting generally rather indifferent poets. On this new disc, the first of a promised complete Elgar songs from Channel Classics, the predominant tone of the words is that of Elgar’s Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries. This requires some work from singer and pianist to overcome the aura of the parlour, and it is to the credit of singers Amanda Roocroft and Konrad Jarnot and pianist Reinild Mees that they succeed.

The selection of songs is not chronological; it ranges widely from 1875 to 1909 though the majority of the songs date from around the time of The Dream of Gerontius and after; in fact one of the curiosities of Elgar’s song-writing is that he wrote so few in his youth. That said, The Self Banished, which opens the recital dates from 1875 and represents an impressive debut as a song-writer, Elgar was just 18 when he wrote it and it remained unknown, unpublished until recently.

Amanda Roocroft is allocated the first batch of songs. Roocroft has an attractive warm voice with fine diction and a good sense of line. She also has a significant vibrato, this is expressive rather than intrusive but the recording has perhaps caught her voice a little too closely so that we are slightly too aware of the vibrato. Her voice, at times, lacks allure and a feeling of evenness. But she is a highly communicative singer and gives a fine committed performance which convinces us that she believes in these songs.

Not all the songs in this group are of equal interest. But The Wind at Dawn, which sets a poem by Elgar’s future wife Alice, has a richly textured vocal line accompanied by a strong piano part, which Elgar later orchestrated; in his admirable CD notes Lewis Foreman describes this as ‘to all intents and purposes, a sixth Sea Picture’.

Inevitably, any survey of Elgar’s songs must encompass the Sea Pictures. Elgar himself performed these on the piano with the work’s first soloist, Clara Butt, so it is quite reasonable to include them here. Reinild Mees makes an admirable job of the piano part and almost helps us forget the orchestral version. As if to aid this, Channel Classics have taken the decision to allocate the vocal line to a baritone rather than a contralto. Nothing is said about this in Foreman’s notes and I have no knowledge whether Elgar would have been happy with this or not. All we can do is listen and make our own judgement.

Konrad Jarnot makes an admirable job of it, singing with firm ringing voice and a lovely breadth of tone. He makes a superb job of the songs’ climaxes, delivering with a clear, ringing top. But when they descend to the depths, things are less happy. Partly it is because the vocal lines are harder to articulate an octave below what they were supposed to be sung, and partly because the transposition leaves strange gaps between the piano part and the vocal line. This baritone version of the songs is not one which I would want to listen to every day, and I would hope perhaps that a future volume in this series might include the contralto version as well. But Jarnot and Mees make a strong team and Jarnot delivers Elgar’s fine songs with passion and commitment.

Jarnot also sings the final four songs in the recital. Here the transposition to baritone seems happier, or perhaps I am more forgiving because the songs are less familiar. Whatever the reason, Jarnot’s passionate delivery of them is entirely convincing.

This is a fascinating disc and I look forward to the remainder of the series. The performances are strong and convincing, both singers have fine diction and convey both the music and the text in a way which is wholly admirable and necessary in this style of song. Reinild Mees makes a good accompanist with good feeling for the orchestral nature of Elgar’s piano parts.

If only the recording had captured Roocroft’s voice in a rather more alluring, flattering light, this would have been a stunning release. As it is, these committed performances are essential listening for anyone interested in English song and the music of Elgar.

Robert Hugill


 




 


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