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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Coronation March, Op. 65 (1911) [10.37]
Grania and Diarmid, Op. 42: Funeral March (1901) [10.21]
Pomp and Circumstance Marches Op. 39: No. 1 (1901) [6.13]; No. 2 (1901) [5.08]; No. 3 (1904) [5.48]; No. 4 (1907) [5.14]; No. 5 (1930) [6.16]
Caractacus, Op. 35: March (1898) [7.06]
March of the Mogul Emperors, Op. 66 No. 4 (1912) [3.50]
Empire March (1924) [4.17]
Polonia, symphonic prelude, Op. 76 (1915) [14.25]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, February 2003
NAXOS 8.557273 [79.16]

Naxos has done itself a disservice in featuring the familiar Pomp and Circumstance marches on the box and in the blurb. Intrepid collectors mightn't think to check out the remainder of the program and thatís where the real interest lies.

Ominous brass calls get the Coronation March, commissioned for the coronation of George V in 1911, off to an uncharacteristically grim, portentous start. The music soon settles into the sort of affirmative whirling flourishes later adopted by Walton and Bliss for their own occasional pieces. We don't frequently hear anything from the cantata Caractacus or the incidental music for Moore and Yeats' play Grania and Diarmid; the funeral march from the latter is particularly striking, its peculiar half-tints suggestive - as Keith Anderson notes in the booklet - of the Celtic twilight. And Polonia, written for a 1915 concert in aid of the Polish Victims' Relief Fund, is a find. Elgar described it as a "symphonic prelude", but it's really a compact, gripping tone-poem, making a far greater impact, to my mind, than the discursive Falstaff - admired though the latter is in many quarters. The other pieces, if less distinctive, are appealing make-weights.

Three cheers for the repertoire, then; but only two for the performances. The program, like some real concerts, takes a while to build a head of steam; were the selections recorded in order? The ceremonial splendor of the first two works exposes the tonal shortcomings of the understaffed New Zealand Symphony string sections: too many passages sound unduly subdued, though the eerie woodwind blends of the Grania and Diarmid selection are nicely realized. It doesn't help that James Judd, on this outing at least, suffers from the Leonard Slatkin Disease, in which the strings don't carry full tonal weight from note to note, thus sapping their sonority of interest and life. Interpretatively, the conductor rather botches the Pomp and Circumstance set, setting skittish, unstable tempi, imposing arbitrary unmarked holds, and passing a fair amount of nervous, approximate execution.

To my surprise, the following performances improved exponentially. The brass chording that introduces and dominates the Caractacus march sounds splendid: firmly grounded, pillowy in tone, well-balanced, and resplendently recorded in the bargain. In the trio section, the woodwinds manage to suggest delicacy and solemnity at once. And Polonia gets precisely the rhythmic alertness and logical phrase shaping that's missing elsewhere. With its lovely poignant woodwind soli and full-throated tuttis, it's the highlight of the disc.

A small cavil: a number of the pauses between tracks are chintzy, as if the producers were afraid of exceeding the disc's space limits. Still, at Naxos prices, you can buy this for the latter half of the program. I'd look elsewhere for Pomp and Circumstance, however: Norman Del Mar's colorful, vibrant accounts - on a Polydor LP or a Deutsche Grammophon CD - are well worth seeking out.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Patrick Waller



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