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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Falstaff, Op. 68, Symphonic Study in C minor (1913) [35:44]
Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op. 62 (1910) [5:42] *
Grania and Diarmid, Op. 42: Incidental Music and Funeral March (1901) [9:55]
Froissart, Concert Overture, Op. 19 (1890/1901) [14:54]
Graham Sheen (bassoon) *
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. St. Augustine's Church, London, March 1995
WARNER APEX 2564-62200-2 [66:15]

I'll come clean right up front: I've never "gotten" Elgar's Falstaff. I may well be in a minority there - various encomia, both online and in print, suggest that many consider this tone poem a masterpiece - but I've always found it long, shapeless and rambling. Once past the statement of the two principal themes - the first representing Falstaff, the second Prince Hal - the structure of the piece is dictated exclusively by the extra-musical program rather than by abstract formal considerations. In this respect it resembles the more discursive Liszt tone-poems. The problem is not inherent in the genre: Strauss's Don Quixote, for example, is of comparable length and its program is similarly detailed, yet its variation structure offers sufficient and regular repetition of motifs to provide a sense of arching coherence. Absent the program, it's hard to make sense of what you're hearing. Yet it won't do to play against the score's discursiveness: a tightly-paced reading merely scants the music's pictorial element without compensation, with Solti's standing among the more spectacular failures - Decca, perhaps fortunately caught in digital limbo.
Warner's - or, originally, Teldec's - producers seem to be aware of these potential pitfalls, and do their best to smooth the listener's way. Each episode of the score gets a separate track - twenty-nine in all, some lasting for just a few seconds - and Anthony Burton's booklet note provides a track-by-track synopsis of the program, like a sportscaster's play-by-play. And the conductor, Andrew Davis, is an experienced advocate of the score. His first, Lyrita LP (SRCS77) recording of the piece - made long, long ago, at the start of his international career - was clean and well-organized, if short on sheer passion. Here, the warm tone he draws from the BBC strings, while fuzzing the outline of the phrases, draws the ear. Sonorous weight is balanced by a springy, buoyant rhythmic impulse. Davis leans expressively on Elgar's characteristic broad melodies, the better to set off chipper, idiomatic woodwind staccati. I enjoyed hearing the music, which is something, and appreciated the composer's expert orchestration, even though a grayish recording neutralizes its splashes of color. But I didn't actually like the piece any better.
But collectors may well value the rest of the recorded program. The title of the Op. 62 Romance suggests a salonish trifle, but the strings' anguished opening gesture - harbinger of the deep emotions to follow - immediately dispels any such impression. Daniel Barenboim's old Sony (originally CBS) account, probably the most readily available of the older recordings, offered a polished, responsive English Chamber Orchestra, but here the use of a full string section adds to the sense of weight. I can imagine a rounder, more supple bassoon timbre than Graham Sheen's, but he deploys his narrower, more focused sound sensitively.
The Grania and Diarmid Funeral March is no stranger to disc - it also turned up relatively recently on James Judd's Naxos disc (8.557273 - see review) - but here it's preceded by a brief, evocative introduction, which presumably constitutes the billed "Incidental Music". The horns' quiet calls to attention, answered by searching string chords, don't hold much interest melodically, but nicely set up the Funeral March, which moves with a steady, forthright tread.
I suspect we'd hear Froissart more frequently in the concert hall had Elgar not composed the masterful Cockaigne. The earlier overture incorporates all the familiar Edwardian melodic and rhythmic gestures, without quite cutting the strong profile of the later piece. Davis's performance is sympathetic and flowing; I remember the lyric themes emerging more affectionately in Barbirolli's EMI account, but I haven't actually heard that one in years.
The BBC Symphony, shedding its customary workmanlike persona, plays with splendid commitment. The violins whistle slightly in altissima in Froissart, true; elsewhere, the aching, liquid beauty of the clarinet solos, and the horns' poised attacks on exposed high notes, are ample compensation.
Stephen Francis Vasta





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