Sir Edward ELGAR
String Quartet o Piano Quintet*
Sorrel Quartet o Ian Brown*
Chandos CHAN 9894
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.