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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1834)
Great is the Lord

Great is the Lord, Op. 67 (1912) [10:24]
They are at rest (1909) [2:56]
Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode (1932) [6:39]
Ave Maria, Op. 2 No. 2 (1887) [3:11]
The Spirit of the Lord. Prologue from The Apostles, Op. 49 (1903) [7:23]
Te Deum and Benedictus, Op. 34 (1897) [19:25]
O salutaris hostia (1880) [2:58]
Ave verum Op. 2 No. 1 (1887) [2:39]
Ecce sacerdos magnus (1888) [3:14]
O hearken Thou Op. 64 (1911) [4:28]
Give unto the Lord Op. 74 (1914) [8:45]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. 6, 7, 13, 14 July 2006, Westminster Abbey. DDD
HYPERION CDA67593 [72:11]

 


Hyperion continue their fruitful association with Westminster Abbey and its choir with this contribution to the celebrations of Elgar’s 150th anniversary.

One of Elgar’s first musical engagements was as assistant organist to his father at St. George’s Roman Catholic church in Worcester. He became his father’s assistant in 1872 and succeeded him in 1880. Thus choral music – and ecclesiastical music at that – was in his very lifeblood. Four of the pieces here recorded – the four that date from the 1880s - are the product of the St George’s years. Frankly, even I as a committed Elgar enthusiast, find it hard to work up a great deal of enthusiasm for these four slight items. I do wonder if, as is the case with a fair few pieces by Mozart, they would be thought worth recording these days if they did not bear the name of a composer who subsequently became distinguished. Is it a coincidence, for example, that even Lewis Foreman, who contributes the excellent liner notes, can find little to say of O salutaris hostia?

Happily there is much more substance to the other pieces. They are at rest, a setting of words by Cardinal Newman, was composed for performance on the anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria in 1910. It’s a touching little a cappella piece, very well sung here, and I like the way James O’Donnell keeps the music on the move.

Another departed Queen is commemorated in the Memorial Ode that Elgar penned in 1932 in memory of Queen Alexandra. Thirty years before he had written his Coronation Ode to mark the enthronement of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and the much shorter and less elaborate Memorial Ode is a neat piece of musical symmetry. Coming right at the end of Elgar’s life it’s as if he’s briefly revisiting the golden days when he was at the zenith of his creative powers. But in this little Ode he revisits those days in a mood that’s inevitably more elegiac and nostalgic. The piece was written for outdoor performance by chorus and military band and the original score is lost. It’s been recorded before, in an orchestration by Anthony Payne, and in that form it’s included on the disc that includes the speculative reconstruction of Elgar’s “Piano Concerto” (see review).

On this disc we hear it in an edition by Jonathan Wix with organ accompaniment by Robert Quinney. The new version is most skilfully done and the music is sensitively performed and, in this guise, it has a lovely sense of intimacy. That said, I rather prefer the Dutton performance. The conductor on that disc, David Lloyd-Jones, moves the music forward just a touch more and so in his hands the music flows more convincingly. And for all the felicities of Robert Quinney’s organ writing, the Payne orchestration delivers more colour and variety.

Robert Quinney is also heard to excellent advantage in The Spirit of the Lord. It may seem odd to praise the organist ahead of the singers in a choral piece but Elgar’s original orchestration in the prelude to the full oratorio, The Apostles, is tremendously evocative and subtle and I think it’s a fantastic achievement on Quinney’s part to render the organ part in such an atmospheric fashion. For those of us who have sung or heard the original work it can never be the same without orchestra but Quinney makes me suspend my disbelief. The Westminster choir deliver the piece with excellent feeling – the trebles sing a beautiful line at “To give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes”.

The recital opens and closes with pieces that can best be described as “public”, as opposed to a smaller-scale, more intimate piece such as O hearken Thou, which is given a lovely performance. The final work on the programme is Give unto the Lord. This was written for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St. Paul’s Cathedral, so it’s music for An Occasion. There are grand, noble passages but for me the most successful section, at least in this performance, is the more reflective passage, beginning at “In His temple.” However, O’Donnell and his choir are equally successful in putting across a Big Statement such as occurs at “and the Lord remaineth a King for ever.” Elgar springs something of a surprise by not ending this public piece in an obvious blaze of glory and I rather like that.

Another “public” piece, Great is the Lord, which similarly dates from the height of Elgar’s maturity, opens the programme. It was a temptingly obvious choice with which to open proceedings, featuring as it does a quintessentially grand, sweeping Elgar melody at the very start – and what a tune it is! However, I’m not entirely sure that the Westminster men – there are 19 of them to balance 19 trebles - possess collectively the sheer vocal heft and amplitude to do full justice to this tune; it cries out for a larger ensemble. After the glories of this melody I don’t really feel that Elgar knits the piece together all that successfully. The music is episodic and I’ve never been completely convinced, either when singing or listening to the piece, by such passages as “For lo! The kings assembled themselves.” However, when Elgar reprises the big tune at “For this God is our God”, it’s a thrilling moment and then, once again, he surprises the listener, this time by winding down the music in a mood of reflective calm before a gloriously affirmative “Amen” rings out.

This CD contains much singing that is very good, even if once or twice I’d have liked to hear a bigger sound. James O’Donnell has clearly got a first rate choir at his disposal and he directs them expertly. As I’ve already indicated, the accompaniments by Robert Quinney are superb, he utilises the majestic Abbey organ with great imagination and skill. His playing and the choir’s singing are reported marvellously in a warm recording that both uses and captures the Abbey’s resonant acoustics very well indeed. Lewis Foreman contributes excellent notes and the full texts are supplied in the trilingual booklet – in English, French and German. I have to warn, even though I am a great enthusiast for this composer, that this programme contains some music that is decidedly “B” list Elgar but there’s also a good deal of noble music to enjoy in very good performances and the disc is a fine offering as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations.

John Quinn

 


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