Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Sir Edward ELGAR
String Quartet o Piano Quintet*

Sorrel Quartet o Ian Brown*
Chandos CHAN 9894 [64:37]
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Two immediate points of curiosity here - to most collectors the first labels that spring to mind when naming the best British independent classical record companies are Chandos and Hyperion. Both have extensive and glorious histories and whilst they themselves do not make too much of any strong rivalry, they both thoughtfully compete with each other when recording identical repertoire. Each company, however, generally has its own very distinct style and areas of A&R choice, so it was more than a little surprising to discover that Chandos has chosen to use the same pianist, Ian Brown, in the Elgar Piano Quintet as Hyperion, who recorded the work in 1992.

Also curious is Chandos's decision not to include a third work on this CD. At a time when competition is rife, one would have expected the label to ascertain the current front-runner in the repertoire and try to trump it. In this case, general opinion (including Gramophone and the Penguin Guide) has the mid-price recording by the Vellinger String Quartet, with pianist Piers Lane in the Quintet, as the CD of choice. In addition to its price advantage over Chandos the EMI Eminence CD includes the short Canto popolare (arranged by Elgar for viola and piano) from In The South.

The Sorrel Quartet has made several recordings for Chandos as part of its exclusive contract, including works by Britten, Mendelssohn, Schubert and an ongoing Shostakovich cycle. Chandos clearly believes that the Sorrels can compete in the core quartet repertoire. Included in this category must be these Elgar works, even though they are considerably less well known outside the United Kingdom. Competition is fierce in this coupling. In addition to the above-mentioned Vellinger CD (CDEMX 2229), there are recordings by the Maggini Quartet - with Peter Donohoe (Naxos), the Medici Quartet - with John Bingham (Meridian), the Aura Ensemble - with Hans Joerg Fink (on a hard to find Discover CD) and the Chilingirian String Quartet - with Bernard Roberts (EMI Classics). Other notable recordings include the String Quartet played by the Brodsky String Quartet (ASV, coupled with the Delius Quartet) and the Quintet played by Ian Brown with members of the Nash Ensemble (Hyperion, coupled with the Violin Sonata).

These are two marvellous works which, with the Violin Sonata Op 82, formed the trio of great chamber pieces, composed directly after the First World War (1918 - 1919) and which effectively represented the end of Elgar's life as an active composer. Only the Cello Concerto - also from 1919 - followed and this proved to be his final masterpiece. He lived, of course, for a further fifteen years, and he went on to compose a little more music. But none of it measured up to the great Elgar of the Symphonies, Concertos, Oratorios and these miraculous chamber works. He felt little appreciated in the new post-war world and turned his enthusiastic attention instead to the Gramophone, an invention which gave him the opportunity to set down his interpretations of his orchestra-based works - a circumstance with less pomp perhaps but of incalculable value to music lovers today.  

The Sorrel Quartet is well recorded by Chandos. Any tendency for the first violin to appear somewhat backward in the balance is more to do with her playing style than the work of the sound engineer. Elgar's String Quartet is not an easy work to bring off. In comparison to the Quintet, it does not give up its secrets easily. None of the available versions can be described as ideal; one has to look back to the 1960s when the enterprising British budget label Summit/Delta recorded all three works with Leonard Cassini (piano), Alan Loveday (violinist in the Sonata) and the Aeolian Quartet. The Aeolians, in particular, understood Elgar's strange new sound world and his unusual use of angular melodies, whilst carefully not losing sight of the composer's English restraint. The Sorrel Quartet struggle in the first movement to identify with Elgar's vision, the playing is often scrappy, intonation is suspect (at 3:00 and again from 3:21) and one cannot escape the strong feeling that the players are under-prepared and not sure of their overall interpretation.

Matters improve slightly in the Piacevole movement, although the playing continues to lack the absolute security this music demands. At 7:59 the recapitulation of the main theme lacks the sentiment which is such a hallmark of Elgar's style. The Allegro finale is better still - perhaps the Quartet recorded the music in the 'correct' order and hadn't truly warmed up in the first movement. Elgar also returns to his more traditional compositional style here which perhaps suited the Sorrels better. The climax certainly displays plenty of Elgarian passion.

The Piano Quintet is the more immediately attractive work with plenty of melody and changes of mood to stimulate the performers. The Sorrels (with Ian Brown) sound more relaxed than in the Quartet. They avoid any tendency to a "Palm Court" type of performance and the stature of the work is never in any doubt. But the inevitable direct comparison with the Hyperion CD (CDA 66645) also featuring Ian Brown with, here, members of the Nash Ensemble is not to the advantage of the Sorrels. The piano is better balanced on Hyperion and the late Christopher Van Kampen's cello rises more ecstatically in the opening statement. The Nash Ensemble, of course, play a great deal of music with their regular pianist Ian Brown throughout each season and in this performance the high level of communication between all five players is wonderfully instinctive rather than laboriously rehearsed. Note, for example, the subtle use of rubato at 3:12 and 3:50 in the opening movement.

The Hyperion CD is to be strongly recommended for the Quintet and also for its fine coupling of the Violin Sonata (Marcia Crayford and Ian Brown). Probably the best version of the String Quartet is the mid-priced EMI disc with the Chilingirian Quartet. Its accompanying version of the Piano Quintet is not as fine as the Nash Ensemble's, but makes an interesting comparison. I personally find the Vellinger CD somewhat overrated and the Brodsky's performance of the Quartet (usefully coupled with the Delius) is distinctly mannered.

Simon Foster

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