|Founder: Len Mullenger||
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
Sir Edward ELGAR
Elgar was self-taught, and it was therefore the more natural that his musical priorities should have related closely to the musical life he knew as his experience developed. In 19th century England, and well into the 20th century too, the great strength of English music was the proud choral tradition that existed across the length and breadth of the land, but particularly in the major industrial cities, the developing festivals and the still important role of the church.
Look at the dates and opus numbers of the works collected here and the case becomes stronger and stronger. For the masterpieces on which Elgarís reputation most surely rests, the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius, for example, did not arise from nothing, but rather followed a succession of substantial pieces for choral forces that were associated with major organizations promoting the performance of music on the larger scale. It was through the 1890s that Elgar developed his sure technique in the handling of larger forces, and following the music chronologically in this magnificent EMI collection is a real education.
These thirteen generously filled CDs contain some of the greatest choral music in the repertory, in performances which are of excellent standard, and good quality recorded sound too. The price is attractive and appealing, but how much so will of course depend upon how much of the music is already on a collectorís shelves. Although some of these performances date back more than thirty years to the 1960s, in many cases they have not been surpassed.
It is interesting to find Richard Hickox at the centre of this collection alongside the artists of the previous generation: Sir Adrian Boult, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Charles Groves. In several cases Hickox has gone on to record this music for other labels, in particular Chandos. Occasionally his performances can be recommended above those contained here, as for example in Caractacus, in which the more recent Chandos recording outshines the Groves performance in its clarity and superior balance. Not that Groves is anything less than satisfying, however.
In The Apostles Boultís vision of the music guides the listener on an epic journey, reaching to a magnificent apotheosis captured in richly satisfying sound by the EMI engineers. The female singers, Sheila Armstrong and Helen Watts, are at the very top of their form.
Likewise Boult gives a magnificent performance of The Kingdom, a work he always claimed to love even more than Gerontius. For sure this oratorio contains some of the noblest music Elgar ever created, for example the theme associated with the Holy Spirit. Margaret Price follows Boultís visionary lead with some marvellous singing in the great sequence entitled The sun goeth down, which is perfectly paced and shaped. If there is a criticism it is that the role of the chorus is not always as clearly defined as it might be in the recorded perspective, but the challenge of the complex textures and shifting priorities makes this in any case a complex issue of interpretation rather than mere technicality of resources.
There is a coupling with the second disc, as there was too in the separate two-disc issue. This is Philip Ledgerís committed rendition of The Coronation Ode, the work in which Land of Hope and Glory first appeared (we should remember that the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was purely orchestral). There is a clear danger of inflated pomposity and jingoism in this piece, but with his fresh, clear-headed approach, Ledger avoids any such charge, bringing much vitality to the rhythmic thrust of the faster music, much sensitivity to the slower moments. As in The Kingdom, the female singers are particularly fine.
Barbirolliís famous recording of The Dream of Gerontius is genuinely a classic of the gramophone. It must have been a difficult decision whether to include his or Boultís recording of this wonderful work, since each performance remains one to treasure. Barbirolli brings a special sensitivity to matters of phrasing, while his Gerontius, Richard Lewis, is also on the top of his form. The Finnish bass, Kim Borg, is in splendid voice, too, though not everyone will care for his pronunciation of English vowels. But the jewel in the crown of this great recording is The Angel, as sung by Janet Baker in one of her best recorded performances. In fact one is tempted to ask if she ever did better than this throughout her illustrious career. In all, this recording is a memorable achievement, fully worthy of the work that Elgar described as Ďthe best of meí.
Richard Hickox has assumed the mantle of his illustrious predecessors, and no conductor of our time has done more in the service of British composers. His performance of The Banner of St George is suitably colourful and lively, which it has to be to bring to life this work dealing with the noble patron saint and his slaying of the fierce dragon. Yet the best music in this piece is surely the quietest and most tender, featuring melodic inspiration of memorable personality. Although this music is not consistent with Elgarís best standard, it is still well worth hearing.
Discs 8 and 9 couple Grovesís dramatic rendition of Caractacus (see above) with Grovesís understanding and idiomatic interpretations of the great Enigma Variations and the Imperial and Coronation Marches. Groves knew and loved this repertoire, and with vibrant sound his version of Enigma is not to be ignored. The celebrated Ďslow movementí, Nimrod, is especially memorable.
Groves is also the conductor in The Light of Life, the story of the miraculous healing of the blind man. Although the more recent Hickox recording on Chandos is blessed with richer and more warm sound, Groves achieves a nobility of line and direction which communicates his love of the music through every bar. Perhaps the orchestra and chorus are not on their very top form, and might have gained from the extra rehearsal time that would have eradicated some slackness of ensemble, but the performance still gives satisfaction.
Richard Hickox is again the conductor on the disc that couples the cantata The Music Makers with the orchestral song cycle, Sea Pictures. Felicity Palmer makes a characterful soloist in the latter, combining well with the orchestra to bring this appealing music to vivid life. While this performance does not eclipse the classic version by Janet Baker with Barbirolli conducting, it does have the bonus of even better recorded sound. Palmer is also on good form in The Music Makers, while Hickox is clearly in sympathy with this work which makes much of the indulgence of self quotation. There is an urgency to this performance which is most compelling.
The Spirit of England, with Hickox once again the conductor, dates from the years of the First World War. This is a rousing piece, containing some excellent opportunities for the solo soprano, of which Felicity Lott takes full advantage. With its setting of Laurence Binyonís For the Fallen this was a rousing conception, and Hickox certainly captures Elgarís intentions and makes out a strong case for the music to be given a higher profile in the English choral repertory.
There are various fillers and a couple of duplications, and these shorter pieces are of much interest. In fact the final disc of the set is a straight reissue of recordings from the 1960s, made in particularly appropriate venues: Worcester and Gloucester cathedrals. The latter was the venue for Herbert Sumsionís celebrated performance of the Organ Sonata, and though the recording of nearly forty years ago does show some signs of its age, the ample acoustic of the cathedral affords the performance a compensation depth of perspective and seriousness of tone. From the Choir of Worcester Cathedral come various miniatures, including three delightful short pieces from Elgarís Opus 2, the earliest music in this remarkable collection.
The thirteen discs come gathered together in a rather flimsy cardboard surround that soon reveals signs of strain and wear. But since the discs each have their normal casings this is not a significant problem.
Of all the record companies EMI always held the richest catalogue of Elgar performances. To have these wonderful recordings collected Ďunder one roofí, so to speak, is clearly something to treasure. For these discs will grace any library shelf, provided of course that there are not too many of them already there.
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