Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934) Introduction and Allegro**, Op 47 [13.59] Serenade in E Minor, Op 20 [13.05] Elegy, Op 58* [4.22] Sospiri, Op 70* [5.08] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958) Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis[16.13] Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' [4.39] 
  Sinfonia of London: *New Philharmonia Orchestra **With Allegri String Quartet conducted by Sir John Barbirolli 
Recorded 10/11 November 1962 and 16 Aug 1966. Kingsway Hall, London. † Recorded 17 May 1962. Temple Church, London. EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM5 67240 2 [58'07"]

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Once it's there it won't go away. You're stuck with it, whatever happens. I'm talking about the association of a piece of music with an image, an event or recollection of either. Back in 1963 when the world was young and your reviewer had some hair - and television was in black and white - the BBC screened a programme which included film of a little boy, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, riding a pony in magnificent hilly country. With the image was some glorious string music which perfectly matched what was on the screen. The film, of course, was Ken Russell's magical "Elgar" made for the Monitor series. The music - Elgar's Introduction and Allegro.

Did the film catch a trend, or did it create one? Probably something of each. Certainly the programme was influential with the music loving public at large (perhaps more outside London than in the Capital - discuss!) as Elgar's music came back out of the shadows. Tarred as jingoistic - and even worse, horror of horrors, unfashionable - from long before his death 30 years before the Monitor programme, he was a man not receiving the recognition in his own country that he ought to have had. Since then he has regained his rightful place in English music. Just look at the current massive interest in the Elgar/Payne Symphony. As for the music - well, I can't stop associating it with that TV of nearly 40 years ago. And I don't want to, either.

This disc is a masterpiece. If it isn't in your collection in any of its old formats - then buy it now. It's a must have. Six works, played faultlessly, in incomparable performance by musicians and conductor in perfect accord and almost breathing the music they are so involved.

Two of the longer works are the Elgar Introduction and Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia. Similar in that each uses a double string orchestra and string quartet, both have a most beautifully judged recording depth with the soloists' placement allowing them to be as one would like to hear them in a concert hall. The Introduction - a marvellous work - has a reading full of warmth and affection. The great striding theme has immense vigour and the gentler contrasting passages are full of light and shade with the fugue a model of clarity. J.B himself can be heard, whether exhorting his colleagues or simply expressing his enjoyment isn't clear.

For the VW Tallis, taped 4 years earlier, the recording venue moved from the studio to the larger acoustic of London's Temple Church. For a work such as this there was real and clearly audible benefit from the greater resonance it gives to shimmering upper strings. The Fantasia itself - written as a single movement of almost hypnotic appeal is given a radiant performance worthy of its stature as one of the great string works.

Elgar's E Minor Serenade, a gentle work with Barbirolli lingering over the lovely melody of the Larghetto , and two of his shorter pieces complete his contribution to the disc. His Elegy, Op 58 is a work showing greater depth than one would expect from a commissioned piece, while Sospiri (meaning sighs) written for strings, harp and organ has an extended string line of such wistfulness that we must wonder what prompted such heart on sleeve music. English reserve- what nonsense. As a perfect ending to a well-nigh perfect disc is RVW's Greensleeves Fantasia - probably the single piece of music most widely thought of as "English".

The recording and balance were always highly regarded and the new remastering is excellent.

I make no apologies for my enthusiasm for this disc. It's in my own personal list of Desert Island Discs choices. Even then, I'm not allowed to give it more than five stars (The Editor won't be bribed).


Harry Downey

(There Harry - especially for you - LM)

 Details of the entire Great Recordings of the Century series may be seen here


Harry Downey

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