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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Edward Elgar - The Collector's Edition
The Masterpieces – The Greatest Artists
The symphonies, concertos, orchestral, choral, chamber and piano music plus CD30: Elgar conducts Elgar
Full contents list at end of review
rec. London,. Liverpool, Manchester, 1963-1990. (CD30: 1929-1933) ADD/DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5036032 [30 CDs: 1904:17]

All the great Elgar works – and some others - in iconic recordings drawn from the EMI vaults.
There's a stack of Elgar here and I have listened to only a small part of it. I have sampled my way through the discs but in any event have known all but a few of these recordings for years often in these reissued transfers when released individually.
EMI Classics have the world's most bountiful Elgar treasury. No label has recorded as much Elgar. The label's  reputation was established in the 1960s when the composer's star had seemed to have sunk beyond recall. This set includes several recordings from those days. Indeed in many ways what we have here is a volume recording the rise of Elgar's reputation in modern times. These are often pioneering performances and recordings; not that there is anything primitive about the sound. At the very least the sound is stereo captured in shining analogue. From another point of view you might even claim that these recordings went out on a limb - the stuff of musical evangelism from a company taking a major risk with music condemned as amateurish, bombastic, otiose and embarrassingly sentimental.
From the 1920s onwards Elgar's sumptuous orchestral scores were roundly condemned. Time and tide had turned against him. He was always the subject of sneers because he was not a product of the Royal Academy or Royal College. Now that the wheel of fashion had turned neglect was to be ground in. This was to continue over a period that saw considerable advances in technology making audio reproduction more agreeable and accessible to a wider public.
Drawing deeply on their back catalogue the present set offers both analogue (the majority) and digital stereo sound from as early as 1963 (some of the Barbirolli orchestral items) to as late as 1990 (orchestral songs) - let's leave CD30 out of the reckoning for now. The lion's share of the orchestral items are from the mid-late 1960s and most of the rest from the mid-1970s to late 1980s. It all sounds very good indeed.
The box is available at less than £1.50 per disc. The presentation is basic but what's to complain about? Each of the 30 discs comes in its own plain light paper sleeve - rather like an LP inner sleeve. The 30 CDs and a 32 page booklet fit into the inner thick card pocket which in turn slips into a hard card outer.
Elgar wrote much for the human voice and much of that is presented here. However the words are not provided in the booklet. It's the price you pay for such a compact package which runs to some 32 hours playing time.
So what is in the booklet? Not much more than a basic identification of the works on each disc. There's no biography and no notes. Instead it provides a full track-listing, disc by disc, movement by movement. Usually a (p) year is given for each recording and only in the case of the last disc ("Elgar conducts Elgar") are we given exact recording dates and venues.
This is a Collector's Edition in the sense that a collector might want to add Elgar to his shelf and know that when the spirit moves him or her to listen to some Elgar he or she will have at least good and often toweringly fine recordings to hear. If the listener is curious he will have to try the internet or library or any one of the tens of books that have been written about Elgar and his music. As for finding the sung words that's going to be a bigger challenge. If you have web access then you can probably track down the text of Gerontius or of Sea Pictures and some of the other songs. However for the words of most of the other works involving singing of one sort or another you'll be struggling. Few composer sites - and certainly not the Elgar ones - offer the sung words to read on screen, to copy or to download. I'll be genuinely pleased to be given URL source for King Olaf, Spirit of England, The Light of Life, Starlight Express, Caractacus or even The Kingdom and The Apostles.
This is not then for the collector who must have lots of written context or full discographical details or even the collector who wants to follow the words from a printed source.
All that said it remains an astonishing bargain and one that should do well as a gift at any time of year.
So what do we get? In short it's pretty well all the Elgar works you would ever want. Major omissions: none. OK it's not all the piano music, no songs with piano alone, not absolutely all the choral music. You will not be hearing the really obscure choral-orchestral items such as La Voix dans le Désert, Fringes of the Fleet or those other cinderella works written around the early years of the Great War. Even so every major work is here and most of what isn't major
The broad choices made by Richard Abram are interesting artistically speaking. Boult is represented lightly. None of his symphony or concerto recordings. You do get Boult's The Musicmakers, The Apostles and The Kingdom alongside his In The South, Sanguine Fan (ballet score) and a smattering of other minor scores. At this point I'd really only question Abram's choice of Boult's In The South. They had a much better version in the classically volatile passionate performance by Silvestri and the Bournemouth Symphony. Rather like the piano solos and songs, if you want the Silvestri it should be reasonably easy and inexpensive to pick up as a supplement.
In the orchestral works it's Barbirolli who gets the limelight. In fact the six discs of Elgar-Barbirolli pretty much account for all the orchestral music and for The Dream of Gerontius. This will be frustrating for those who bought EMI’s Elgar Barbirolli box.
Barbirolli was aged between 63 and 67 when he made these recordings and had only four more years to live after the latest sessions. He brought to his Elgar a lifetime of associations which included being amongst the earliest solo proponents of the Cello Concerto. He knew the composer and had his imprimatur as a result of conducting the Second Symphony in 1927. That these tapes were made in the 1960s when Elgar's music still stood in the unwarrantedly mired reputation of imperial bombast is all the more remarkable.
While this bargain set is presented with the typically spartan minimalism you are not short-changed on artistic and technical quality. The recordings are excellent 1960s EMI vintage. The Introduction and Allegro and Serenade are from the illustrious Sinfonia of London sessions originally issued on ASD 521; vinyl that at one time seemed destined to remain forever in the catalogue and at full price. In fact the whole recording with the Sinfonia of London (RVW Tallis and Greensleeves) was reissued on a GROC some time ago. These performances add decisively to the attractions of this set. Rangy, poignant and full-blooded playing is yours in the Introduction and Allegro. There's a wondrous analogue depth to the recording which captures the throaty attack of the massed strings. Incredibly this was Barbirolli's sixth and final recording of the work. Isn't this the recording exhilaratingly used by Ken Russell in his Elgar film: the final titles with the camera mounted in a car accelerating up the hill roads?
Barbirolli's reading of the First Symphony sometimes feels as if it has lead weights attached, at least in the first movement. It would be an eccentric sole representative but it is of the type that easily engenders enormous affection. It has a special plangency and lustre greatly assisted by the harp's underpinning, captured even in moments of notable climax. No surprises there as EMI's team proved a decade later with the harp figuration refulgently heard in Birmingham for the Walton-Frémaux coronation marches. The Second Symphony has the same virtues and faults. Barbirolli relishes every moment - and there is pleasure in that for the listener too. This performance lacks the headstrong potency of the Solti/LPO Decca which remains both watershed and reference disc as much as Barbirolli does for the Introduction and Allegro. Once again however the recording proclaims its high calling in capturing the violins' 'fugitive gleam' for example in the second movement at 2:20 and also the assertive grandiloquent bloom of the horns. The strolling legato of the finale is lovingly paced and as well judged as the pregnant gait Barbirolli mints for the opening of the First Symphony. The stereo separation and other spatial qualities excitingly enhance the bold and noble brass-string dialogues from 4:10 onwards in the finale. The climax with that swaying asymmetrical syncopation at 8:50-8:53 still has the power to get you on your feet. You should also have as a supplement No. 2 as recorded in the early 1970s by Solti.
Barbirolli's Falstaff has the impetuous qualities of its subject, dissolute, quixotic, rash (quite a lot of that), given to humour, poetry, affectionate lechery and self-pity. This is a reading as full of unruly life as Robert Nye's portrayal of Falstaff or in Orson Welles film The Chimes at Midnight. The conductor, himself a cockney, knew and loved Elgar's London as reflected in Cockaigne and delivers an impetuous and loving reading which in this case does not dawdle (try 2:12). That shiver of youthful panache can also be felt in the early Froissart overture. Contrary to my earlier review this was not the first version since the composer’s. In fact Boult recorded it on ALP 1379 and this was issued in 1956 coupled with Dream Children and the P&C Marches. It lasted in the catalogue till 1968 - just after the Barbirolli was issued (with thanks to Chris Howell for this information).  As with Falstaff the recording of Enigma is generously tracked so that you can find your way around with ease. While this does not have the momentum of the Beecham version (BMG-Sony) - a personal favourite - it is grand and expansive and most artistically recorded. The marches are crackingly done and Nos. 2 and 4 stand out in this company for their gruffly spick and span rigour. That said, I still rate Norman Del Mar's recording with the RPO very highly indeed for its vivid character (DG-Universal).
CD5 is an exact copy of another well-loved EMI LP (ASD 655) again with a phenomenally long shelf-life at full price in the EMI catalogue. Janet Baker, caught in her early prime, is matchless in Sea Pictures, making, with her sincerity and naturally pellucid enunciation, a masterful impression of a work that is not out of Elgar's top drawer. The Du Pré Cello Concerto is also most beautifully and passionately done and is generally reckoned a reference version. For me it lacks the sheer irresistible voltage overload of the live recording in 1970 with her husband conducting the Philadelphia (BMG-Sony). These stand testimony to the velvet and satin translucency of the now-demolished Kingsway Hall; almost as much of a loss as Barbirolli himself.
Looking back we have now adjusted to the imbalances of the Elgar-Barbirolli heritage. There's no Violin Concerto. Such a pity he did not record the concerto in the 1960s with the then still fiery Ida Haendel - rather than the honour falling to an elderly Boult when the flames were reduced to a fitful glimmer (Testament). We also missed a Barbirolli In the South (although there is a BBC Legends CD of a radio broadcast from circa 1970) a piece which should surely have suited Barbirolli's Italian blood if the Introduction and Allegro is anything to go by. As it is, the crown for that work belongs, as I have said, Silvestri - another EMI treasure - a true Great Recording of the Century. I should add that the Sinopoli version on DG is a pretty potent effort too – most impressive.
These Barbirolli readings are still exciting, eccentric and blessed, magnificent and suffused with radiant personality.
You might, five or so years ago, have bought the Elgar-choral works box in which case you have much but far from all of the rest of The Elgar Collectors Edition.
If Boult is here only fitfully then much the same can be said of other more recent EMI faithfuls such as Handley and Haitink. In fact there's no Haitink at all. Handley appears only for Starlight Express, King Olaf, the two Wand of Youth suites, the Gordon Jacob-orchestrated Organ Sonata (CD8) and a handful of songs with orchestra. Richard Hickox is represented by two rare big scores: The Spirit of England and The Banner of St George recorded in 1987 and 1988. In fact these, together with Handley's recording of King Olaf, are the most recent recordings here.
Someone who does well is Sir Charles Groves; and I am very pleased to see him so extensively represented. It's a pity that his Elgar advocacy during his many years at Liverpool was not systematically recorded. He did so much and often did it well! In any event he appears here directing The Light of Life, The Black Knight, Caractacus, Nursery Suite, Severn Suite (orchestral not brass band) and The Crown of India suite. 
I was delighted to see that of all the versions of the Violin Concerto available to EMI the 1970s Hugh Bean account from Groves and the RLPO is chosen. It is the one closest to the classic Sammons recording (Naxos). It is certainly to be preferred for its poetic concentration and drama over the much lauded but ultimately rather pedestrian historically important versions from Menuhin. Then again no Elgar collection should be considered complete without the Heifetz/Sargent  recording (Naxos or BMG) or indeed either of the charismatic versions by Nigel Kennedy (both EMI). I have been listening to the recently EMI-reissued Kennedy/CBSO/Handley and it’s phenomenal – very personal and never dull.
The concentration in a set like this is bound to be on the orchestral and choral-orchestral works. However EMI do not neglect the chamber music. All three post-Great War scores are there. CD 12 has the Piano Quintet from Ogdon and the Allegri with the String Quartet from the Music Group of London whose David Parkhouse is the pianist with Hugh Bean on CD6 in the Violin Sonata.  Good choices from recordings made more than thirty years ago. The Sonata and  Quintet are still available with the Bean violin concerto on a CFP double.
You can if you wish compare the original of the Organ Sonata on CD26 with the Jacob orchestration on CD6. The original from 1965 is played by Herbert Sumsion in Gloucester - one of the Three Choirs cities. Compare also the orchestral Three Bavarian Dances (Sonnenbichl, Hammersbach, Bei Murnau) on CD9 (Boult) with their counterparts in the lovely choral work From the Bavarian Highlands. The latter is played by that doughty Elgarian (superb Enigma and Pomp & Circumstances on DG-Universal). You can also compare Barbirolli's P&Cs, Serenade and Cockaigne from 1963-66 (CDs 3-4) with the composer's own from 1927-33 (CD30).
That last CD is the only mono disc here; inevitably so since it represents Elgar conducting his own works in recordings made between 1926 and 1933, the year before his death. The most substantial work is Cockaigne so this represents only a taster but I congratulate whoever made this choice. It lets us hear the composer - even in old age - speaking directly through his music. If briefly we also hear Elgar's voice as he introduces Land of Hope and Glory for the soundtrack of a 1931 Pathé newsreel.
A set such as this prompts other speculation in this Elgar's 150th birthday year. Surely in years to come we will see all of Elgar's own electrical process recordings collected in an “Elgar's Elgar Edition”; something similar appeared across several weighty boxed sets in the days of the LP. Other companies may also produce a box of the acoustic recordings. Surely there will also a complete Boult-Elgar box and in years to come do not be surprised to see an Elgar-Handley box. Beyond Elgar and with the Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert 50 boxes in the background you are not telling me that EMI will not issue a complete RVW in 2008 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death - but at its core will the symphonies be from Boult, or Handley or Haitink? There'll be the chamber music from the Music Group of London, all the choral music conducted by Boult and the operas shared between Boult and Meredith Davies. Watch this space. Beyond EMI keep an eye on Chandos. Their catalogue of Bax, Walton, RVW and Elgar is in depth. While they have been the first to exploit all they have for online MP3, WMA and lossless downloads they have stood clear from the hurly-burly of major boxed sets at bargain price. They may well awake to issue wallet sets for their house composers over the next decade - although the situation may be complicated by new recording formats.
Back to this Elgar set. I suppose the ideal purchaser is the almost complete beginner. Someone who has heard Gerontius or the Cello Concerto and is determined to have and explore further at leisure. Then again there is someone who has quite a bit of Elgar but not these recordings. They may have the Elgar-Solti box (Decca) or the Andrew Davis (Warner) and be happy to hear alternative versions and at the same time add many new Elgar works to the shelves. Naxos have issued several Elgar boxes and plenty of individual discs. If you have any of those and want to extend the collection massively in one fell swoop then look no further.  The packaging will also appeal to the Green and Pleasant Land brigade - nothing wrong with that – they should try Caractacus first. The box design certainly encourages them and suggests the younger, poetically reflective composer rather than the white mustachioed relic of Empire. Interesting that the flag-wavers are not pandered to by the designers. Elgar is treated for a large part of what he is in much of his music - a composer of passion and inwardness.
In summary - a shining bargain for the Elgar explorer.
Rob Barnett
Full details
CD1 [67:54]
Symphony No. 1 in A flat Op. 55, Introduction and Allegro
Philharmonia Orchestra, Allegri Quartet, Sinfonia of London/Sir John Barbirolli
CD2 [65:40]
Symphony No. 2 in e flat Op. 63, Serenade
Philharmonia Orchestra, Allegri Quartet, Sinfonia of London/Sir John Barbirolli
CD3 [63:30]
Falstaff:  Symphonic Study in C minor Op. 68
Cockaigne (In London Town) - Concert Overture Op. 40
Froissart  - Concert Overture Op. 19
Hallé Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
CD4 [73:17]
Variations on an Original Theme 'Enigma' Op. 36, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 - 5, Serenade in E minor Op. 20
Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sinfonia of London/Sir John Barbirolli
CD5 [53:55]
Sea Pictures Op. 37, Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85
Dame Janet Baker, Jacqueline du Pré, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
CD6 [74:36]
Violin Sonata in E minor Op. 82, Violin Concerto in B minor Op. 61
Hugh Bean, David Parkhouse, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves
CD7 [69:33]
Nursery Suite, Severn Suite Op. 87, Suite from The Crown of India Op. 66, Coronation March Op. 65
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves
CD8 [62:29]
Organ Sonata [No. 1] in G Op. 28, The Wand of Youth - Suite No. 1 Op. 1a, The Wand of Youth - Suite No. 2 Op. 1b
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
CD9 [52:51]
Three Bavarian Dances, Chanson de nuit Op. 15 No. 1, Chanson de matin Op. 15 No. 2, Fantasia and Fugue in C minor Op. 86, Overture in D minor
In the South (Alassio) - Concert Overture Op. 50
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
CD10 [49:46]
Carillon Op. 75, Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35, Grania and Diarmid Op. 42, Polonia Op. 76, Caractacus Op. 35, Imperial March Op. 32, Empire March (1924)
David Bell, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
CD11 [62:28]
Beau Brummel, Dream Children Op. 43, Salut d'amour Op. 12, Minuet Op. 21, May Song, Rosemary, Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra Op. 62, Sevillana Op. 7, Sérénade lyrique, Mazurka Op.10 No. 1, Serenade mauresque Op. 10 No. 2, Contrasts Op. 10 No. 3, Carissima, Mina
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Collingwood, Northern Sinfonia of England/Sir Neville Marriner
CD12 [77:09]
Piano Quintet in A minor Op. 84, String Quartet in E minor Op. 83, Serenade, Concert Allegro Op. 46
John Ogdon, Allegri Quartet, Music Group of London
CD13 [38:49]
The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 - Part I
CD14 [70:40]
The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 - Part II
Janet Baker (mezzo); Richard Lewis (tenor); Kim Borg (bass); Halle Choir; Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus; Ambrosian Singers/Halle Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
CD15 [78:00]
The Apostles Op. 49 - Part I
CD16 [57:38]
The Apostles Op. 49 - Part II
The Apostles and the Kingdom - An Illustrated Introduction by Sir Adrian Boult (2006 remaster)
Sheila Armstrong (soprano); Helen Watts (alto); Robert Tear (tenor); Benjamin Luxon (bass); Clifford Grant (bass); John Carol Case (bass); Choir of Downe House School; London Philharmonic Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
CD17 [72:19]
The Kingdom Op. 51
CD18 [64:05]
The Kingdom Op. 51
Coronation Ode Op. 44
Op. 51: Margaret Price (soprano); Yvonne Minton (alto); Alexander Young (tenor); John Shirley-Quirk (bass); London Philharmonic Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Op. 44: Dame Felicity Lott (soprano); Alfreda Hodgson (alto); Richard Morton (tenor); Stephen Roberts (bass); Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Band of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall/Sir Philip Ledger
CD19 [71:12]
The Light of Life (Lux Christi) Op. 29
CD20 [72:21]
The Black Knight Op. 25, Scenes from The Saga of King Olaf Op. 30 - Part I
CD21 [48:43]
Scenes from The Saga of King Olaf Op. 30 - Part II, Spanish Serenade Op. 23, The Snow Op. 26 No. 1, Fly, singing bird Op. 26 No. 2
CD22 [54:19]
Caractacus Op. 35 - Scenes I & II

CD23 [59:01]
Caractacus Op. 35 - Scene III
CD24 [46:10 ]
The Banner of St George Op. 33, Great is the Lord (Psalm 48) Op. 67, Te Deum and Benedictus Op. 34
Stephen Roberts, London Symphony Chorus, Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox
CD25 [46:10]
The Spirit of England Op. 80, Give unto the Lord (Psalm 29) Op. 74, O hearken thou (Offertory) Op. 64, Land of Hope and Glory (arr. Arthur Fagge)
Dame Felicity Lott, London Symphony Chorus, Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox
CD26 [76:10]
Ave verum corpus Op. 2 No. 1, Ave Maria Op. 2 No. 2, Ave maris stella Op. 2 No. 3, 11 Vesper Voluntaries Op. 14, Angelus Op. 56 No. 1, Give unto the Lord Op. 74, O hearken thou Op. 64,
Te Deum and Benedictus Op. 34, Organ Sonata [No. 1] in G Op. 28
Worcester Cathedral Choir, Harry Bramma, Christopher Robinson, Herbert Sumsion
CD27 [55:19]
The Music Makers Op. 69, The Sanguine Fan Op. 81
Dame Janet Baker, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
CD28 [70:40]
The Starlight Express - Incidental Music Op. 78
Valerie Masterson, Derek Hammond-Stroud, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
CD29 [72:38]
Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands Op. 27, Pleading Op. 48 No. 1, Was it some golden star? Op. 59 No. 3, Oh, soft was the song Op. 59 No. 1, Twilight Op. 59 No. 6, The Torch Op. 60 No. 1
The River Op. 60 No. 2, The Shower Op. 71 No. 1, My love dwelt in a northern land, Five Part-Songs from the Greek Anthology Op. 45, The Wanderer (1923), The Reveille Op. 54,
4 Choral Songs Op. 53 - Deep in my Soul, Jerusalem, The National Anthem (arr. Elgar)
CD30 [76:55]
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 - 5, The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 - Prelude, Serenade in E minor Op. 20, Five Piano Improvisations, Salut d'amour Op. 12, Chanson de nuit Op. 15 No. 1
Chanson de matin Op. 15 No. 2, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Op. 39 No. 1 - Trio, Cockaigne (In London Town) - Concert Overture Op. 40
BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, New Symphony Orchestra, Sir Edward Elgar


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