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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op. 40 (1900-01)*
Rec. 11 April 1933, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’), Op. 36 (1898-99)**
Rec. 28 April, 30 August 1926, Queen’s Hall, London
Pomp and Circumstance Marches Op. 39
No. 1 in D major (1901)**
Rec. 27 April 1926, Queen’s Hall, London
No. 2 in A minor (1901)**
Rec. 27 April 1926, Queen’s Hall, London
No. 3 in C minor (1904)***
Rec. 15 July 1927, Queen’s Hall, London
No. 4 in G major (1907)***
Rec. 15 July 1927, Queen’s Hall, London
No. 5 in C major (1930) ***
Rec. 18 September 1930, Kingsway Hall, London
Side 3 of the Cockaigne Overture in "Accidental Stereo"
Rec. 11 April 1933, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra **
London Symphony Orchestra ***
BBC Symphony Orchestra *
Edward Elgar (conductor)
NAXOS 8.111022 [67:35]

Recordings such as these are like Mitchell & Kenyon movies, bringing the past into vivid and lively animation. Naxos producer and audio restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn has done a marvellous job with these performances: there is a healthy and reassuring amount of surface noise, meaning that the treble has been faithfully kept, rather than being compressed out of existence in a futile attempt to create hiss-free sound. The ear quickly becomes accustomed to this noise, which is benign and fairly constant – so without further ado we can move on to the music.

Having works conducted by the composer is almost always an enlightening and useful document. Elgar was among the very first to have a significant impact in terms of a recorded catalogue, and with the fortunate timing of the development of electrical recording techniques in the 1920s his works could be preserved without the restrictions of acoustic recording, in which the forces of an orchestra had to be drastically cut in order to give an impression of the music. The booklet for this CD gives some of the background history to the earlier 1914 recordings, which point the way to his enthusiasm for the process of documenting his music, and making it available to as wide an audience as possible.

Elgar had already gained considerable experience of studio recording at earlier HMV sessions, and by the time of his recording of the Cockaigne overture had the luxury of an Albert Hall Orchestra which had been trained by the great Sir Adrian Boult. One can but imagine how the composer must have revelled in being able to work with such flexible music making under his baton. Hair sharp dynamic changes, well-tempered clarity from the inner voices and well balanced brass and winds – all so important in an Elgar score, and all present here with only a very few minor compromises in intonation and ensemble.

Elgar’s first recording of Cockaigne had taken place in 1926, just before the first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches. There is a slightly thicker level of opacity over these recordings, but again, the ear finds little problem in adjusting. The orchestra plays with discipline and energy, and one finds little difficulty in feeling the electric effect such music must have had on audiences of the time. Again, there is very little compromise in terms of performance, and the orchestras cope well with Elgar’s brisk tempi. The high percussion, cymbals in particular, can sound a little strange on occasion, and oboes often seem flat and leathery in tone, but in general these recordings come up surprisingly well.

The booklet has very little to say on the subject of ‘Enigma’ but again, it is fascinating to hear subtle stylistic fingerprints of a bygone age – portamento strings for one thing, especially noticeable in the opening ‘Theme’. Comparing timings with Sir Adrian Boult’s own recording with the London Philharmonic, Elgar is consistently brisker with his tempi, for example polishing ‘Nimrod’ off at 2:53 to Boult’s 4:37. Elgar does however prove himself time and again to be the most skilful advocate of his own music, and the orchestral musicians respond to his leadership with verve and energy.

The curiosity of the final track, an ‘accidental stereo’ fragment of the Cockaigne Overture, is a fascinating glimpse of what might have been. It was common practice to have two turntables running during the cutting of wax master discs, one disc being kept as a safety, or being set at a lower cutting level in case of peak distortions. As an exception to the norm, one microphone was used for each machine on this recording (as opposed to a single microphone feeding both machines), so, by painstakingly synchronising both ‘takes’, Mark Obert-Thorn has managed to reproduce all of that stereo information. The effect is quite marked, particularly in pointing out the acoustic in which the orchestra is set. There is no great ‘placement’ of instruments, but there is some spatial information, with the sense of some instruments more to left or right being more or less pronounced depending on the density of the musical texture – most certainly a significant bonus track for those who may posses the documented versions of these recordings elsewhere.

Elgar was nearing the end of his life when many of these recordings were made, but the sense of commitment and conviction which he generates from the orchestras leap from your loudspeakers – qualities today to which many aspire, but few achieve to this extent. Bearing in mind that each recording is a ‘live’ take, direct to a wax master, I was consistently impressed by the quality of the orchestral playing, and potential purchasers should certainly look beyond these recordings’ stuffy image as historical relics – they are far, far more than that. There can however be no doubting the historical value of such recordings, and to my ears this Naxos CD cannot be faulted on the quality of sound which has been produced from these pioneering recordings – priceless!

Dominy Clements

 

 



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