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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

AVAILABILITY 

Beulah

Edward ELGAR (1857-1943)
Falstaff: Symphonic Study, Op. 68 (1913)* [34:11]
Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, Op. 47 (1904-5) ^ [13:37]
Serenade in E Minor, Op. 20 (1892)^ [11:05]
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, Op. 39, No. 1 (1901) # [7:12]
Imperial March, Op. 32 (1897) # [4:30]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 in G, Op. 39, No. 4 (1907) # [5:24]
*London Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins; ^Strings of the New Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins; # London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. Kingsway Hall, London *12-15 February 1954; ^31 March, 1 April 1952; # 2 March 1953. ADD
BEULAH 4PD12 [76:05]

 

Beulah has recently re-released Anthony Collins’ celebrated set of the Sibelius symphonies (see review), now they restore to circulation some of his Elgar recordings.

It’s amazing to think that this recording of Falstaff was set down over fifty-two years ago. The quality of the sound here is a tribute not just to Beulah’s transfer but also to the superb original work of Decca’s Kenneth Wilkinson. It’s also a testament to the much-lamented acoustics of London’s Kingsway Hall. Credit is due also, however, to the skill of Anthony Collins in balancing the often-complex strands of Elgar’s orchestration. The accompanying notes contains a quotation from Collins in which he avers, inter alia: “If one is to interpret great music it is necessary to be a composer”. Now Collins was a composer himself and though I can think of many great conductors who were not composers – and, some would say, more than one composer who should never have picked up a baton! – it’s not for me to argue with him. However, I would add that the success of this performance – and the others on the disc – demonstrate how important it can be to have the thorough understanding of the internal workings of the orchestra such as one can only acquire through extensive experience of playing in one. Collins was principal violist of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years and that experience shows here. It’s significant that Sir John Barbirolli, who made fine recordings of most of the pieces on this disc also had a background as an orchestral cellist.

Barbirolli’s superb 1964 recording with the Hallé, also made in the Kingsway Hall, has long been my favourite version of Falstaff (EMI CDM 7 69485 2). Collins’ portrayal of the Fat Knight may not always match Barbirolli’s sweep and warmth, nor his sense of colour, but I don’t think he’s far behind. He obtains some very fine and committed playing from his former colleagues in the LSO and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this convincing reading. I felt drawn in and in particular all the tempi seemed natural. As with Barbirolli, this has the feel of a genuine complete performance and I wonder how close to a single ‘take’ this was.

The passage where Sir John falls asleep - the last 2 or 3 minutes of track 2 - is very well handled – Collins realises Elgar’s marvellously imaginative orchestration really well. Here, as throughout the performance, the bass line is given its true weight - after all, it’s on a solid bass line that so much of the richness of Elgar’s orchestral scoring is so often to be found. The ‘Dream Interlude’ is tenderly done with some lovely string playing.

As the end of the work approaches Falstaff’s sadness at his rejection by Prince Hal and his recollections of their good times together, now far off, finds Elgar at his wistful best. Collins does this passage excellently. Falstaff is such a typically Elgarian work, full of contradictions and contrasts – just like the man himself – and Collins proves to be equal to the many challenges of technique and imagination that this wonderful score contains. His version doesn’t quite displace Barbirolli’s in my affections but it comes close and I’m delighted to find this reading once again available.

Barbirolli again provides the competition – and formidable competition at that – in the Introduction and Allegro. His 1963 version with the Sinfonia of London (EMI CDC 7 47537 2) has something of classic status, and rightly so. Here I find the recorded sound for Collins not quite as satisfactory as that accorded him two years later in Falstaff. On my equipment the upper strings sounded rather metallic in the opening flourish. However, the ear adjusts and there’s some animated string playing to enjoy. The solo quartet play well and the recording differentiates nicely between them and the main string band without any feeling of artificiality. At times Elgar’s demanding writing stretches the players of the NSO but Collins conducts the work with real fire and empathy and turns in a good performance.

The slender Serenade is light and easeful music. I like Collins’ way with it; he brings out its wistful charm. It’s a pity that Beulah don’t track each of the three short movements separately, something I’ve never encountered on CD before. For the record the start of the second movement (track 6) is at 3:04 and the third begins at 8:05.

Three marches complete the disc. Collins does the two familiar Pomp and Circumstance marches. I was disappointed by Number 1, which I felt was hobbled by a tempo that’s just a fraction too deliberate. This means that the music is robbed of the last ounce of brilliant swagger. This is especially true when we get to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. At Sargent's pace the tune sounds self-consciously stately. It seems to me that he miscalculates by failing to look ahead to the fortissimo repeat of the tune – to say nothing of the final reprise. The music needs just a touch more lift and flow if it’s not to sound stodgy and I’m afraid it sounds stodgy here. Its companion fares better. It may be heretical to say so but I actually think this is a better march than Number 1, and not just because Number 1 has become almost hackneyed. Here Sargent moves the Big Tune of the trio along at a tempo giusto and it flows naturally and impressively – and it’s a hell of a good tune! Finally we get the Imperial March in a decent performance under Sargent. It’s good to hear this forerunner of the Pomp and Circumstance set, which has been a little unfairly overshadowed.

This is a valuable CD, which reminds us of Anthony Collins’ significant credentials as an Elgar conductor and its restoration to general circulation is to be welcomed.

John Quinn

See also Reviews by Rob Barnett and Lewis Foreman

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