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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Falstaff, Symphonic Study in C minor, op.68 (1913) [35:40]
Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, op.62 (1910) [6:18]
Cello Concerto in B minor, op.85 (1919) [28:32]
Smoking Cantata (1919) [0:51]
Heinrich Schiff, cello, Graham Salvage, bassoon, Andrew Shore, baritone
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Recorded 21st-22nd July 2003 in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK (Falstaff, Romance), 11th-12th October 2003, in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK (cello concerto, Smoking Cantata)
HALLE CD HLL 7505 [69:42]

 

Here’s another CD from the revitalised, rejuvenated Hallé. Back in the 1980s, their fall from grace in the post-Loughran years was viewed with dismay in the musical world, rather as if Manchester United had slipped from the premiership. Now they’re back with a vengeance, and these recordings make it seem as though they and their current maestro, Mark Elder, were made for each other. Concert reviews have been excellent, and their growing reputation can only have been further enhanced by the recordings that have emerged on the new Hallé label. It was heartening to hear the news that Elder has signed a new contract which should see him in Manchester at least until the end of the decade.

This disc begins with Falstaff, Elgar’s most important contribution to the symphonic poem genre – though he used the term ‘symphonic study’. An apt description, for this is a wonderful musical portrait of one of Shakespeare’s most trenchant creations – Sir John Falstaff, patron saint of all fat men. His story is traced through the plays Henry IV Parts I (where the character appears as Sir John Oldcastle) and II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a chequered tale, beginning with his status as a roistering pal of the young Prince Hal, but ending in miserable obscurity after rejection by the same when he is crowned King Henry V. Elgar must have pondered the irony that, once the darling of royalty himself, and created Master of the King’s Musick in 1924, he was out of fashion and out of favour by the end of that decade. Elgar’s Edwardian country gent swagger concealed a chronic lack of confidence (‘self-esteem’ it would now be called), for he was ever the outsider.

So his portrait of Falstaff is more, much more than an opportunity for orchestral virtuosity and a riot of descriptive effects. Though little recorded until the 1960s, there are now several fine versions available, including Mackerras, Rattle, and of course Barbirolli with this same orchestra as this CD. Elder’s version is easily comparable with any of these; indeed I would be hard put to choose between this version and Rattle’s. I suppose I would always ultimately return to Barbirolli; yet the characterisation in Elder’s version is exceptionally powerful. The grotesque humour and the sheer disreputability of Falstaff and co. comes through so well, with every detail audible yet in its correct place in the texture.

This is a masterly reading of a great score, and Elder has drawn stunning playing from his musicians. Notable are the pianissimo moments that make you catch your breath, such as those murmurous muted strings where the dying Sir John "babbles of green fields". Soon after that, the violas’ understated reminder of the great Prince Hal theme is memorably noble. The recording is quite outstanding; touches like the little tambourine rattles in the first Dream Interlude or the baleful C major wind chord announcing the moment of Falstaff’s death near the end are perfectly captured.

The lovely Bassoon Romance follows, and receives a pleasant, if rather cool performance from the orchestra’s principal fagottist, Graham Salvage. Elgar played the bassoon to a good standard in his youth. Even though the violin was his main instrument, he took up the bassoon as a way of wooing the girls (yes, sadly wind players have always had it easier in this respect than their earnest string playing friends), and the solo part is perfectly conceived for the instrument.

Then it’s on to the other major work on the disc, Heinrich Schiff’s reading of the Cello Concerto. Schiff is a magnificent instrumentalist and musician, but I found this performance of the concerto strangely uninvolving. The second movement – the scherzo of the work – is superb, with Schiff’s fabulous technical control giving the music whirlwind momentum. The Allegro portions of the finale, too, are splendid. Yet the heart and soul of the piece are surely the introspective passages of the first and third movements, and of course the devastating coda of the finale. Schiff plays with undoubted beauty, but just misses the inward quality that is needed. Perhaps the recording – in the BBC music studio in Manchester – is unkind to the cellist, for although the balance in itself is good, with all orchestral detail clear as a bell, the close miking seems to give Schiff’s instrument an almost unnatural resonance. This makes it hard for him to achieve the kind of intimate pianissimo that characterises the best versions. In the Adagio, another problem emerges, which is Schiff’s difficulty in sustaining a true legato line, of joining up the notes to create those glorious arches of melody on which the movement is built.

This is, as with all reviews, a very personal matter, and it has to be said that Schiff’s reading is powerful, individual and notably different in approach from du Pré, to name the inevitable comparison - for one thing, Schiff’s is a very masculine interpretation. And as vive la difference is a favourite maxim, I would urge listeners to hear the CD and make up their own minds. After all, you can’t go far wrong with such a rip-roaring version of Falstaff in the bag too.

Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the Smoking Cantata; very small, in fact just 51 seconds of it! Once heard, never forgotten, and a welcome reminder, after the gloom of the concerto, of Elgar’s Pythonesque sense of humour. Andrew Shore’s lungs, hopefully unsullied by tobacco, hold up sufficiently for him to do the work full justice.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

See also review by Tony Haywood


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