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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Shepherd’s Song [2:44] ¹
Queen Mary’s Song [3:39] ¹
Is she not passing fair [2:43] ²
Rondel [1:40] ²
A Song of Autumn [2:49] ³
The wind at dawn [2:55] ³
Like to the Damask Rose [3:26] ²
Through the long days [2:01] ²
The Poet’s Life [3:12] ²
The Pipes of Pan [4:45] ³
In the Dawn [3:01] ²
Speak, Music [2:54] ¹
In Moonlight [2:17] ¹
Pleading [2:50] ¹
Oh, soft was the song [1:59] ³
Was it some golden star? [2:37] ³
Twilight [2:53] ³
The Torch [2:10] ²
The River [4:09] ²
A Child Asleep [3:27] ¹
Arabian serenade [2:15] ³
Still to be neat [1:43] ³
Modest and fair [1:35] ³
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo soprano) ¹
Neil Mackie (tenor) ²
Christopher Maltman (baritone) ³
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. Southlands College, London, April 1999
SOMM CD 220 [65:07]


This isn’t a new release – it’s a reprint or repressing of Somm’s 1999 disc. Though Jerrold Northrop Moore’s notes plead the case with his accustomed finesse Elgar’s songs are only occasionally inspired, more often pleasant, and sometimes salon-nondescript.  It didn’t help that he chose to set texts that were, in the main, so dismal but sometimes a third or fourth rate poem proves more inspiring - and less intimidating - to the creative juices than a towering masterpiece.

I decided to take up Northrop Moore’s unacknowledged challenge. He mentions one of Elgar’s favourite singers, John Coates, the dedicatee of two of these songs. “Arch-chanter John” fortunately recorded both In the Dawn and my own favourite amongst the songs, Speak, Music. Whilst I wouldn’t invariably recommend comparing songs inter-generationally the value of hearing the “Creator” recordings of Coates is not to be spurned. Neil Mackie, the pick of the three singers on Somm’s disc, takes the former song with adroit musicality and subtle skill. His voice is light but fluid and dynamics are well attended to. The head voice is sweetly taken. But next to Coates he sounds very much the parlour gentleman. Coates is ardent, expressive, and tremendously engaging – and the acoustic Vocalion is not at all bad. In Speak, Music Coates implores, he loves, he employs rubati, acts out the lines (hear how memorable he is in “I am fain of it!”) and brings the song to life with unselfconscious and unembarrassed intensity. That fine mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers sounds altogether more static and metrical and uninclined to get her feet wet, emotionally. To be frank she sounds as if the words are unworthy of much embellishment.

This happens time and again throughout the recital. Maybe Eric Marshall sounds a touch lugubrious in his 1925 HMV disc of The Shepherd’s Song but he is a warm and thoughtful singer.  And when Heddle Nash sang it in 1952 – unissued at the time but now on Dutton – a generation after the Marshall recording he did so with similar passion. The art of Elgarian vocal rubato is something that has now dwindled to insignificance. Nash’s rubato is free and natural, his singing lively and utterly human. The non-committal and static responses of today’s singers make a stark contrast.

Another splendid song – one of the best – is The River. Mackie’s is a neat and elegant traversal but then turn to Tudor Davies in the 1920s. Listen to his flaring and undimmed masculinity, the downward baritonal extension and the invigorating sweep of the thing. It’s currently available in on Cheyne. 

The Pipes of Pan introduces us to Christopher Maltman who was a most eloquent baritone then and now, a decade and a half on, ever more prominent on stage and recital halls. But he too rather lacks the qualities of personalisation and identification that made the recordings by Harold Williams and Horace Stevens so vivid. They weren’t afraid to fling themselves into the sometimes slipshod tweeness of the words. Perhaps today that is proving an impenetrable burden for singers. 

Throughout Malcolm Martineau proves a worthy accompanist; he provides much of the lift and zest of which the singers seem shy. There are full texts.

Jonathan Woolf 


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