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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Music Makers, Op. 69 * (1912) [39:39]
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899) [23:05].
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and*Chorus/Simon Wright
rec. 7 – 8 January, 2006, The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.557710 [62:44]


Elgar gave three great gifts to mezzo-sopranos and contraltos. The greatest of all was the role of The Angel in The Dream of Gerontius. The other two roles are those contained in the works included on this disc. Last year I heard Sarah Connolly give a very fine account of the part of The Angel in Gerontius and this made me eager to hear this disc. Of course, in this repertoire Miss Connolly faces stiff competition, not least from the doyenne of British mezzos, Dame Janet Baker and there is also a very fine, recent recording of The Music Makers by Mark Elder and the Hallé on that orchestra’s own label. How does Miss Connolly fare in the face of such competition? Very well, I’d say.

The Music Makers is Elgar’s penultimate choral masterpiece. It was to be followed only by Spirit of England (1915). He composed the piece in 1912 for the Birmingham Festival, choosing for his text, a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881), which had been published in 1874 in a collection entitled Music and Moonlight. Although concentrated work on the composition took place over a very short space of time between May and July 1912 the gestation period was much longer, as was often the case with Elgar. Indeed, it was in 1908 that he obtained permission to set the poem.

O’Shaughnessy’s poem is, frankly, far from first rate. Percy Young has memorably described it as “a representative period poem, combining an impulsive, heroic optimism with nostalgia, melancholy, and regret.” Once one has read this description it becomes easy to see why the poem appealed to Elgar for his complex character included all these traits. The text drew from Elgar music of the very highest order. It is perhaps his most challenging and advanced vocal work in terms of harmony and rhythmic complexity. It also shows him at the peak of his powers as a master orchestrator. Furthermore, this is also a deeply ambiguous work. There are several flashes of the grand, public gestures so familiar from his earlier compositions. However, time after time the music lapses into a mood of introspection and melancholy.

A very significant feature of the work is the many self-quotations from earlier compositions that crop up throughout, almost challenging the listener to play “spot the tune.” These quotations are woven seamlessly and subtly into the music like bits of a patchwork. Often they are in the accompaniment rather than in the vocal line, which makes them less easy to recognise. Among the works recollected are the First Symphony (1908), the Violin Concerto (1910), Sea Pictures (1899), the ‘Enigma’ Variations (1899), and The Dream of Gerontius (1900). 

I think Music Makers is a very fine work indeed. It’s far from easy to bring off but it has fared quite well on CD. Leading the competition for many years was Sir Adrian Boult’s EMI recording with Dame Janet Baker and the LPO (1967) and more recently we’ve had Mark Elder’s 2005 Hallé version in which the soloist is Jane Irwin. The Boult performance is the one through which I learned the work and the veteran conductor brings all his wisdom and sense of Elgar style to the proceedings. On top of that Dame Janet is a marvellously communicative soloist. Having said that, though, the recording is beginning to show its age and one drawback is that the LPO Choir of 1967 vintage can’t really match the homogeneity and general excellence of the choirs that sing for Elder or for Simon Wright. So though I’d never want to be without it for all its many insights, that version goes back on the shelves. 

The new Naxos version scores over the Hallé recording in one small but important point, namely the greater number of cue points – ten against six. The recorded sound is quite different. The Naxos performance is recorded in a closer balance while Elder is accorded a more natural concert hall perspective – his version was set down in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. 

In terms of the performances one noticeable difference is that Elder tends to be more urgent in places where Elgar calls for such an approach. In general Elder makes more of markings such as con fuoco and stringendo, both of which occur several times. To my ears the Hallé players have something of an edge on their Bournemouth peers in terms of tonal richness but the difference is a fine one and the Bournemouth orchestra acquit themselves very well indeed.  Both choirs sing very well but there are occasions when Elder digs just that bit deeper. So, for example, at the words ‘A breath of our inspiration’ and the short molto tranquillo orchestral passage immediately before it, the Bournemouth forces are very good but Elder and his players and singers achieve a breathless hush. Again, the very end of the piece, delivered very poetically on the Naxos disc, is even more withdrawn under Elder. 

But comparing these two recordings is a matter of swings and roundabouts and where the Naxos release has a decided edge is in the matter of the soloist. Jane Irwin sings very well for Elder but Sarah Connolly is on top form on the new disc. Miss Irwin, though she sings very well indeed, can’t quite match the tonal richness of her rival. Perhaps it helps that Miss Connolly is more forwardly recorded? I noted that Miss Irwin indulges in a degree of portamento. Whilst undoubtedly authentic, I think on balance I prefer Miss Connolly’s greater restraint in this respect. Both singers do the final solo, beginning at ‘Great Hail’, with command but this is an instance where Miss Connolly’s greater tonal resources give her an edge. Pressed to make a choice between the two recordings I’d probably opt for the Naxos version on account of Sarah Connolly’s contribution but if, on balance, she’s the more exciting of the soloists then Mark Elder’s conducting is more electrifying though Simon Wright has much to offer as well. 

Sea Pictures offers us, by some distance, Elgar’s finest solo songs. It was commissioned by the Norwich Festival of 1899 for performance by Dame Clara Butt and it came hard on the heels of Elgar’s first great triumph, The ‘Enigma’ Variations. The five songs, all settings by different poets, including one by Alice Elgar herself, encompass a wide variety of moods and thus present an interpretative challenge to the singer.

Once again Sarah Connolly faces competition in the shape of Dame Janet Baker and her classic 1965 recording with the LSO and Barbirolli (EMI) remains a formidable benchmark. When I played the opening song, ‘Sea Slumber Song’ for the first time I thought that the tempo sounded slow and I noted that the Baker/Barbirolli version was some 52 seconds shorter. But in fact, the Baker performance begins at a pretty similar speed. However, where the music lightens at ‘Isles in elfin light’ Barbirolli moves the music forward with a lighter, fleeter touch and the effect is better.

Honours are pretty even in the second song. ‘In Haven’. In fact I think that Simon Wright gets just a touch more lift in the rhythms and Miss Connolly’s lighter vocal hues are perhaps just a bit more suited to the piece than is Dame Janet’s voice. However, Dame Janet – and Barbirolli – are quite superb in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea. They catch every nuance in the music. At the passage ‘The new sight, the new wondrous sight!’ Dame Janet’s singing is elevated and she’s simply thrilling at’ He shall assist me to look higher’, a passage I can never hear without recalling her inimitable singing of it. And yet there’s a great deal to admire in the new performance too. Sarah Connolly and Simon Wright deliver the first stanza with a quite marvellous hush. At ‘ The new sight’ the music is moved on purposefully and though ‘He shall assist me’ may not pack quite the same punch as it does with Dame Janet it’s still very satisfying indeed. Both singers turn in fine performances of ‘Where Corals Lie’ and their respective conductors etch in the orchestral accompaniments very sensitively.

The closing song, ‘The Swimmer’ is dramatically projected by Miss Connolly, whose singing is full of commitment and eager urgency. Dame Janet, too, is hugely involving and gives a magnificent performance. However. I can imagine some collectors may find Miss Connolly’s style a bit more natural and may prefer that approach. In summary, both recordings of the cycle are full of insight and both singers offer warmly communicative and wonderfully nuanced singing. At last, in this fine Naxos disc, we have a recording to challenge the longstanding hegemony of the classic Baker/Barbirolli version.

This CD represents a very fine achievement. Although in some respects the performance of Music Makers yields, in my view, to the very fine Hallé version the differences are marginal and the Naxos account is an excellent one in its own right – and it boasts the better soloist. The coupling of Sea Pictures is highly appropriate and this recording need fear no comparisons with the Baker version that has been my clear first choice for four decades. This year will bring, I hope, a crop of distinguished recordings in celebration of Elgar’s 150th anniversary but Naxos has got the celebrations off to a cracking start with this excellent disc. Now will someone please record Sarah Connolly in Gerontius while she is at the height of her powers? 

John Quinn

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf  

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