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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor op.85 [29:52] (1), Sea Pictures op.37 [23:53] (2), The Kingdom op.51: Prelude [09:57]
Li-Wei (cello) (1), Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo-soprano) (2)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
Recorded 26th-29th November at the Adelaide Town Hall, Australia
ABC CLASSICS 476 7966 [63:42]

Successful performances of both Elgar concertos are rare, despite the eulogistic platitudes accorded by some critics. Itís true of the violin concerto, the tensile and reflective equipoise of which is frequently overbalanced in the latter direction, and itís true of the cello concerto, which can sound like one long dirge, with a fugitive scherzo, if not properly characterised and controlled.

This performance takes the heavily laden approach. The opening chords are portentous and drawn out, there are hushed and not entirely convincing pianissimos and a species of overwrought vibrato usage from Li-Wei at 2.20 that shows that the soloistís expressive commitment, whilst passionate, can become excessive.

The fact of the matter is that the whole character of this work has changed over the years. Turn to Beatrice Harrison with Elgar conducting (acoustic and electrical recordings) and to W H Squire with Hamilton Harty and you will hear a commanding, defiant, masculine start with expressive material reflectively projected but without self-pity. Move forward to the immediate post War years and youíll find Anthony Pini, with van Beinum, equally masculine but with less obviously emotive gestures. His was a relatively austere view by current standards, and certainly judged against contemporaneous accounts by Navarra-Barbirolli and the later Fournier-Wallenstein. The Casals-Boult stands at a slight remove.

This performance sounds amorphous by comparison. There are good things in the scherzo, good passagework and a perfect tempo but more evidence of extremes in the slow movement. Itís a du Pré-Barbirolli (but not a du Pré-Barenboim) tempo but vitiated by soloistic over-vibration and the kind of expressive pointing that serves to draw the ear away rather than draw the ear in, not least edge-of-the-seat ppp. I regret that performers now seldom if ever make an orchestral accelerando prefacing the soloistís entry in the finale. Elgar did, and so did Harty, and the lack of rhythmic steadiness gave a driving, tense feeling to the music making. Second generation Elgarians, such as Boult, for Fournier, and Barbirolli, for Navarra and du Pré, kept a steady tempo. Itís a shame Landon Ronald never recorded the concerto as his performance would have been a talking point.

Soloists these days also tend to abjure détaché bowing in this movement Ė listen to both Harrison and Squire who make a point of it. Modern performers prefer a kind of adagio-legato approach and this gives the performance a sense of same-ness, one that lacks individual character and colour. I make these comments specifically of this performance but I could extend them to many others. The finale here is soggy and ill defined and suffers from too elastic a conception; proper tempo relationships are seldom apparent. Itís a pity to be negative about an obviously committed performance but itís too wayward and has appropriated some of du Préís approach without being able to emulate her charismatic control and tonal nuance.

The companion Sea Pictures reminds one of the du Pré-Janet Baker-Barbirolli classic, so often repackaged, and a boon to EMIís coffers as well as to musical posterity. If I turn to the Gladys Ripley-Philharmonia-George Weldon recording of 1946 itís not to regurgitate historical objections or to hold up todayís performers to demerit in the light of past performance practice. But how much more compact, how much more sensible are the Ripley-Weldon tempi, how little tempted they are to tempo misalignments such as mar this performance and indeed the Cello Concerto. The opening song sounds sluggish and improperly maintained, no matter how well the orchestral strands are elucidated (harp, first violins, the basses), and shows metrics used for maximal expressive effect at the expense of architectural cogency. The climax of Sabbath Morning at Sea fails to register, a result of too much tempo to-ing and fro-ing and a lack of opulence and clarion projection in the voice. Elizabeth Campbell seems to feel most for the last song, The Swimmer, where she engages consonants with crisper definition and colours vowels with greater commitment but itís not enough to save the cycle. The Prelude to the Kingdom is rather soggy once more - it should roll forward with cumulative power.

This is a rather disappointing recording. I should note that some will doubtless find its emotive patina more to their liking than I do. The Ripley recording of Sea Pictures is on Pearl coupled with the Nash-Ripley-Noble-Walker-Sargent Dream of Gerontius, the workís finest recording. The Harrison Cello Concerto is on EMI, the Squire on Pearl. There are plenty of more modern alternatives; the Baker for Sea Pictures and for the oft-recorded Cello Concerto Tortelier-Boult or Groves, the du Pré-Barbirolli or Sargent for those who admire it, or my favourites, the Pini and the two pre War 78s already mentioned.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Christopher Howell



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