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



However much one tries not to acknowledge the fact it’s inevitable that the three B’s - Baker, Boult and Barbirolli – hover benignly over this release. The famous coupling of Sea Pictures and the du Pré Cello Concerto has seen service for forty years now. And Baker’s association with Boult was no less noteworthy in respect of The Music Makers. So, tough acts and all that.
 
I think Connolly survives the inevitable comparisons as well as could be expected. She’s probably the most outstanding of the current crop of British mezzos and her singing here is often distinguished.
 
Sea Pictures is the more immediately and overtly exciting work, pitching the soloist straight into the fray whereas The Music Makers reserves her for later and its mingling of poetry, Straussian self-quotation and nostalgia can take a while to appreciate. One of Connolly’s prominent technical advantages is the resonant and excellently sustained lower part of the voice – it means that vocal weight is well distributed throughout the range and she’s as comfortable in the chest range as in the more declamatory writing. The former quality is very much audible in Sea Slumber-Song, the latter in Sabbath Morning at Sea. Here one finds the she uses quite a bit of rubato and builds to the climax with real perception. No one has yet done it like Baker but Connolly eclipses quite a number of other contenders here, especially those who are inclined to squall. She’s also very attentive to the words – not that they’re necessarily much in themselves - like any number of composers Elgar liked setting bad texts. But Where Corals Lie has a serene poetry all its own and Connolly does very well by it. Dramatic and fluid the climax of The Swimmer caps a fine vocal performance, one I’d be happy to recommend. The orchestral backing though is inclined to be a touch undernourished. One appreciates the well-balanced harp, and much of the connective tissue of the writing but Wright and the Bournemouth Orchestra offer nothing genuinely diverting.
 
I think this is more of a problem in The Music Makers. Wright sets off just slightly too jauntily a tempo – a more relaxed and steady speed would probably have been better. The self-quotations emerge from the fabric of the score with requisite immediacy but there’s little that really lifts them beyond the merely self-referential. There’s a lack of real rapture and soulfulness. That’s true when one compares him with Boult and also true when one measures this performance against that of Andrew Davis on Warner [2564 62199-2] who has Jean Rigby with him. And it is also the case that the 2004 Proms performance given by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who gave a mesmerising performance that I hope will be issued commercially. In comparison with these kinds of intensities the new Connolly/Wright performance burns rather less brightly.
 
But I should stress again that Connolly is a splendid singer and much of her contribution is of a very high standard. To get closer to the heart of these works though the mezzo is not enough; as for recommendations Baker obviously in both but also Rigby and Davis in The Music Makers – these are still my preferred choices.
 
Jonathan Woolf        
 
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