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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]

 

 

 

The pairing of the Cello Concerto with Sea Pictures begs comparison with one of the most famous Elgar records ever made, in which two of Britain’s most promising young musicians, Jacqueline Du Pré and Janet Baker, joined forces with elder statesman Sir John Barbirolli. The rest, as they say, is history.

In spite of the myth surrounding these readings – in the case of Du Pré, as with Kathleen Ferrier, it is often difficult to listen to the recording objectively shorn of its tragic trappings – there are Elgarians who feel they established standards of indulgence which have been followed all too often in the ensuing years. This latest fits the pattern all too well. I give comparative timings of the concerto, plus those of another which, in spite of the French cellist, can be considered a “traditional” interpretation.

  I II III IV TT
Li-Wei/Braithwaite 08:22 04:41 05:05  11:43 29:52
Du Pré/Barbirolli  07:58 04:28 05:15  12:15 29:56
Tortelier/Boult  07:17 04:20 04:39 10:40 26:56

The Casals/Boult has been transferred by Living Era as a single track so I do not have movement timings; overall it takes 27:05.

Timings don’t tell us everything and Li-Wei and Braithwaite actually manage more forward movement in the first movement than Casals with their less wayward phrasing, but it does sound doleful and I hear no especial distinction of phrasing or expression that might justify it. The third movement shows more personal commitment to the music, but this is expressed in several agogic exaggerations that would surely become very irritating on repetition.

The fast tempi in this performance are actually briskish-to-normal – the long timing of the second movement is due the way the music is pulled around in the opening bars and whenever the opportunity appears later on. Similarly, if the finale is actually shorter than Du Pré/Barbirolli it is because the main theme is almost too fast, the introspective music then very slow, with the result that the music loses any sense of shape.

Sea Pictures, too, hark back to the famed model:

  I II III IV V TT
Campbell/Braithwaite 05:40 01:48 06:27 03:51 06:07 23:53
Baker/Barbirolli  04:59 02:03 06:16 04:08 06:04 23:30

While it is possible to find Dame Janet’s timbre too dark and the overall effect laboured and lugubrious, it is also undeniable that she was a great singer. Things like her enunciation of “I, the Mother mild, Hush thee, O my child”, capped by her ascent to “Forget the voices wild”, or her outburst at “The new sight, the new wondrous sight” are of the once-heard-never-forgotten variety. The secret seems to lie in an individual response to words and the way they inflect the vocal colouring. It is idle to pretend that Elizabeth Campbell’s singing, in itself finely controlled and refulgent of tone but never going beyond a straightforwardly musical response, can efface memories of Baker, and she has unfortunately missed the opportunity to use her brighter tone to offer a genuine alternative, with more flowing tempi (how about trying those indicated in the score?). The first song is a lethargic, lugubrious affair indeed, a plodding eight-in-a-bar. Did she and Braithwaite not realize that something must be wrong when, towards the end of the third song, Elgar broadens his Moderato (fourth-note = 72) to Grandioso (fourth-note = 66), and they are already going so slowly they actually have to speed up, completely misrepresenting Elgar’s clear intentions? As it happens, this increase in speed means that for once they adopt a plausible tempo and from there the song surges powerfully to the end, but this fragment of the genuine Elgarian article only emphasizes what is missing elsewhere. Both the last two songs suffer from the same problem as the finale of the concerto; basic tempi which are almost on the fast side alternating with drastic slowings every time a ritardando is marked, or even when it is not. Just to give one example of many, the purely orchestral bar after “From the heights and hollows of fern and feather” is marked “poco rall.”, but Campbell and Braithwaite have allowed Elgar’s “molto espress.” to tempt them into a BIG rallentando four bars earlier, so now Braithwaite has to make a bigger one still. Then, two bars later, the word “surely” has tenuto markings over its two notes and is marked “rit.”. Logically, in order to do that, you’d have to go back to your original tempo in the intervening bar, otherwise the whole thing just comes to a standstill.

That much of this may stem from Braithwaite himself is suggested by the “Kingdom” Prelude, where he pitches in as if he’s conducting Strauss’s “Don Juan” and then becomes sticky wherever the temptation comes up (pretty often). Braithwaite is something of a folk-hero with lovers of British music as a result of all those Lyrita records of music we wouldn’t have heard otherwise (and still wouldn’t to this day in many cases), but Elgar doesn’t seem to be his composer.

An irrelevant disc in the history of Elgar on record, obviously; if you like self-indulgent Elgar you will want to get it at source from Du Pré, Baker and Barbirolli. If you want to go back to Elgarian basics a good first stop might be the Anthony Pini/Van Beinum cello concerto (there is a review on the site from 1999 of a Beulah transfer of this early Decca recording; is it still available?).

Christopher Howell

 



 



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