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Edward ELGAR
String Quartet Op. 83
Piano Quintet Op.84
Ian Brown {piano)
Sorrel Quartet
rec 2000
CHANDOS CHAN 9894 [64.37]
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Gone are the days when these works, either singly or as a coupling, were absent from the catalogues. The best of course, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, is the Cohen/Stratton version transferred to CD back in 1993. Since then there have been new versions on EMI (LSO soloists), and on several budget labels such as Edition Abseits, Discover International and Naxos. Chandos have now released the pair with the exciting young Sorrel quartet and the versatile, experienced pianist Ian Brown. The result is superb.

The First World War was a dreadful time for Elgar and a watershed for his career, especially his international reputation, whilst his health was also not good. Lady Elgar found Brinkwells, an isolated cottage near Petworth in Sussex, where her husband could escape from the rigours of wartime London. He began to compose chamber music, something he had neglected for thirty years, though in 1907 he had begun to write a String Quartet for Adolph Brodsky's quartet. Nothing came of it (or more accurately some of its material went into The Music Makers or the First Symphony) until 1918 when Elgar completed this work, dedicated to Brodsky, but first performed in public by W.H. Reed, Albert Sammons, Raymond Jeremy and Felix Salmond at the Wigmore Hall on 21 May 1919. Chamber music is sometimes produced or rediscovered by composers at the end of their lives, Bruch did it too, and often a poignant restless mood or one of solemn repose pervades the music which they produce. Each of the three movements in this quartet fits such a bill, though the impassioned finale has much of the orchestral Elgar in it. The Sorrel Quartet give an excellent account of the work, wistful in the slow movement (most favoured by Lady Elgar and played at her funeral just one year later), vibrantly energetic in the virtuosic finale with impressive unity of ensemble. The Quartet's leader Gina McCormack has no restraint (quite rightly too) in exploiting violinistic effects such as portamento, harmonics etc and gives a dazzling display of her considerable technique, inspiring her colleagues right to the last chord in a tightly knit yet expansively sensitive, well-paced account of a work which is frankly hard to bring off convincingly.

The Piano Quintet also has the same air of melancholy as the quartet, stemming no doubt from his concurrent work on the cello concerto which was next to come, though it tends to more eerie moments - apparently a group of dead trees near the cottage affected Elgar when writing the piece in 1919, 'a ghastly sight in the evening'. The work is notable (and notably performed too) for its ebb and flow of rubato as well as its varied moods. The sublime Adagio drew the best music from Elgar and therefore the best from these players (with some particularly luscious phrases from violist, Sarah-Jane Bradley and cellist, Helen Thatcher) in an exquisitely balanced and above all stylish performance. No less memorable are the brilliantly coloured guitar-like effects towards the end of the first movement and the Spanish element which Reed likened to a local legend of monks in the area but which is now pretty convincingly debunked and attributed to Elgar's friend Algernon Blackwood, a writer of ghost stories. The finale, with its cyclical references to the first movement, is given both passion and subdued sensitivity true to the Elgarian idiom.

This is exciting playing of the highest order, always touchingly involved and, above all, deeply committed. I thoroughly recommended the disc.

Christopher Fifield

See also review by Simon Foster

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