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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cockaigne Overture, op. 40 (1900-1) [13:09]
Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85* (1919) [26:33]
The Wand of Youth, Suite no. 1, op. 1a (1907) [19:08]
The Wand of Youth, Suite no. 2, op. 1b (1908) [14:46]
Elegy, op. 58 (1909) [03:45]
Anthony Pini (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eduard van Beinum
rec. 13 May 1949 (op. 40, op. 58), 14 May 1949 and 12 April 1950 (op. 85), 5 February 1949 (op. 1a), 13 February 1950 (op. 1b), Kingsway Hall, London, produced by Victor Olof, engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson
BEULAH 2PD15 [77:31]
 
My introduction to Elgar was an Ace of Clubs LP in the cupboard of the school music room. It contained the present performances of the Cello Concerto, Cockaigne and the second Wand of Youth Suite. Until now I had never heard them again since leaving school. Nevertheless they remained pretty clearly in my mind and at least once, when reviewing a particularly indulgent performance of the Concerto, I have suggested going back to this one as a return to Elgarian basics. It would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it, if my nostalgia trip proved a delusion.
 
Happily it is not so. Anthony Pini’s slightly wiry - as recorded - but committed tone and the generally forward-moving approach proved much as I remembered them. However, I find that those in search of Elgarian basics but reluctant to forsake stereo sound may be quite happy with the Tortelier/Boult  - maybe also the earlier Tortelier/Sargent or the later Tortelier/Groves but I don’t know these. Here are the timings, together with those of a famous recording which changed our interpretative views for at least a generation.

Cello Concerto
I
II
III
IV
tt
Pini/van Beinum
6:44
4:36
4:28
10:45
26:33
Tortelier/Boult
7:17
4:20
4:39
10:40
26:56
Du Pré/Barbirolli 
7:58
4:28 
5:15
12:15
29:56

As you can see, between Pini/van Beinum and Tortelier/Boult it’s only in the first movement that there is any appreciable difference. Boult had previously (1945) recorded this work with Casals. On that occasion he loyally supported an interpretation which was probably not the one he would have given on his own initiative. Yet Casals must have made an enormous impression on him and almost thirty years later there are touches of a similar waywardness to the phrasing in this first movement, from the orchestra at least as much as from the soloist. Still, compared with the Pini/van Beinum, you are listening to the same music – a graciously-flowing moderato, just very slightly more inflected with Tortelier/Boult. Tortelier has perhaps a greater range of tone to support his approach, though it is unfair to make too much of this when the fine analogue stereo recording obviously catches any tonal variation much better. You may think that Du Pré/Barbirolli only add a few seconds more, but somehow the music seems quite different, a deeply-measured slow movement.
 
When you hear the expressiveness with which both Pini and Tortelier shape the slow movement and the self-communing portions of the finale you may wonder how on earth the music can go more slowly still. They seem to have all the time in the world. Frequently, Du Pré lingers on a single note, drawing it out before she moves on. With Barbirolli clearly in agreement, she presents a greater range of tempi. The third movement may be basically slower, but at a point about two-thirds of the way through it is actually forging ahead faster than the others. In the finale Du Pré’s quicker sections are actually pretty fast. It is a deeply moving performance, but I would say that in order to appreciate it fully you have to have a “basic Elgar” performance in your head to start with. This performance has cast such a spell on subsequent interpreters that they have risked taking it as “normal” and then exaggerating further. So back to basics please, whether it be Pini or Tortelier/Boult.
 
Cockaigne gets a swift, exuberant reading, but van Beinum understands perfectly when and how to relax, maybe just for a bar or so. It is another performance which applies the Elgarian first principles we know from the composer’s own recordings. If a Boult version exists from the 1940s or 1950s - I’m not aware of one - it would probably sound much like this. By 1972 he was in his final phase when he often seemed to be recreating, in a golden glow of memory, the world he remembered as a young man. He takes about a minute-and-a-half longer but this tells us little since his tempi are very flexible, in the old-world manner. His shaping of the opening bars speaks to us of half a century’s communing with this music. I love it, but this is another case where, in order to appreciate it fully, we need to keep a “basic Elgar” version as a comparison. I am sure Boult would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was offering a personalized slant on the music, since this was never his intention, but I think that in some of these late recordings he was doing so.
 
The Wand of Youth suites, in which the mature master reworked themes from teenage compositions, are not easy to interpret. They can seem merely high quality light music, but in the right hands they can evoke a lost world of starry-eyed Victorian childhood. This world can be discovered by reading such works as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse. What today’s computer whiz-kid makes of these I can’t imagine, but this world can also be recreated in all its delicate yet real emotions in a sensitive performance of Elgar’s childhood-inspired works, especially these two suites.
 
It need not surprise us that Boult understands all this perfectly, for he was born in Victorian England. Van Beinum’s short spell as conductor-in-chief of the LPO was in the thick of the post-war reconstruction period and the England he knew was a very different one. And yet he penetrates Elgar’s mixture of nostalgia and bright-eyed wonder with absolute perfection. Finer performances of these exquisite miniatures can hardly be imagined, though I do think that Boult’s are equally fine.
 
Boult’s Wand of Youth record was issued in 1968. It was one of the first products of his “Indian summer” period with EMI. The conductor was just that little bit younger compared with the disc of overtures and there is no suggestion that his former vitality was dimmed while his poetic response to the music was superfine. I simply couldn’t choose between van Beinum and Boult in these suites. Perhaps there are individual pieces where I might slightly prefer one or the other but overall I can only remain lost in admiration. The LPO was a more brilliant instrument in 1949, astoundingly so in Wild Bears where van Beinum obtains articulation worthy of his master Mengelberg. But Boult sees that nothing is seriously amiss in 1968 and his version can be enjoyed in fine analogue stereo.
 
If there is a Boult recording of the brief Elegy I don’t know it. Indeed, I don’t remember having heard the piece before. Van Beinum draws the most exquisite soft playing from his strings – a perfect performance.
 
The recordings are somewhat variable. The second Wand of Youth suite is brilliant if a little glassy and has virtually no surface noise, suggesting that it might have been derived from an LP pressing. The first suite and the Elegy have much more recessed sound with a heavy swish that threatens to drown some of the more intimate passages. The overture and the concerto come somewhere in between. In view of this, a general recommendation is difficult, but those interested in the history of Elgar on record will be rewarded with very fine, totally idiomatic “basic Elgar”.
 
Talking of “basic Elgar”, might EMI take a look at the performances by George Weldon and Lawrance Collingwood recorded in the late fifties and early sixties?
 
Christopher Howell
 

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