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
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
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.
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
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?
by Jonathan Woolf
British Composers on Naxos page