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Elgar: A Self-Portrait
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Overture: Froissart, op.19 [13:29]
Dream Children, op.43 [6:50]
The Music Makers, op.69 [38:41]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750), orch. Elgar
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537/op.86 [8:58]
Jane Irwin (mezzo)
Hallé Choir and Orchestra/Mark Elder
rec. 22-24 March 2005, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. DDD
HALLÉ CD HLL 7509 [68:24]

Experience Classicsonline

The arrival of Mark Elder in Manchester to take over the conductorship of the Hallé Orchestra has been one of the notable recent success stories of British music. And the Hallé label has been a significant element in that story, with an impressive sequence of issues dating back to 2001. This recording maintains the high standard that has been set, with a fascinating programme of music that ranges through Elgar's career, from the swashbuckling early overture 'Froissart' of 1890, via the exquisite 'Dream Children' of 1902 and the great 1912 cantata 'The Music Makers'. It concludes with the arrangement of a Bach Fantasia and Fugue that Elgar made in 1921, the year after his wife's death.

The most substantial work here is 'The Music Makers'. It is an intriguing piece, which famously quotes from a number of Elgar's earlier works - Enigma, both symphonies, the Violin Concerto, Sea Pictures and Gerontius are the main sources. Based on a visionary poem by O'Shaughnessy - later also set, interestingly, by Kodály! - it is one of the composer's hardest works to bring off, partly because of the demands it makes on choir and orchestra, but also because of its curiously episodic structure. For this reason, it is not as well represented on disc as one might expect; in addition to Elder's there are just three notable versions, chronologically by Boult, Hickox and Andrew Davis.

Boult's remains a contender, because, despite its ageing recording from 1966, it has the inestimable advantage of Janet Baker as the soloist. Hickox is nowhere near as successful; he has a fine soloist in Felicity Palmer, but he fails to make the work hang together, and the LSO Chorus is not at its best, though undoubtedly not flattered by the garish recording. Andrew Davis on Teldec fares much better, though the balance is again far from ideal.

So there was a real vacancy for an excellent modern version, and that is exactly what Elder has delivered. The orchestration, such a vital part of the work, is revealed in all its detailed glory; the Hallé Choir sing valiantly and with astonishing tonal variety; and in Jane Irwin, he has a soloist with a highly personal approach. She is direct and youthful, marking her off distinctly from Baker, Palmer and Jean Rigby (the soloist for Davis). Her voice, though not seeming particularly big, is able to carry through the big moments of the work by virtue of its perfectly focused production. She thus brings an certain brightness to a work that can sometimes seem heavy and even turgid in its textures.

But more important than all of this is Elder's grasp of the work, which is more comprehensive than any of his rivals on disc. His dramatic instinct allows him to pace the whole thing superbly, while he goes for, and achieves, really extreme dynamic contrasts. Try the almost inaudible pianissimo for 'A breath of our inspiration' (track 5) as against the massive fortissimo (track 6, 5:55) of 'The multitudes are bringing to pass the dream that was scorned yesterday' (eat your heart out Barack Obama!). Perhaps the key moment is the tingling, reckless excitement he brings to the passage that begins 'And therefore today is thrilling' - this is Elgar at his greatest, and Elder and his forces rise to the challenge magnificently.

The lesser works are treated with the same flair and sureness of touch. "Froissart' is a tribute to the age of chivalry, and, composed in 1890, is pretty well the earliest of his works to demonstrate clearly Elgar's unmistakable qualities. It has brilliant and imaginative orchestration, memorable melodies - including a particularly beautiful one for the clarinet - and a characteristic feel for harmonic colour. 'Dream Children' is a miniature for chamber orchestra in two tiny movements, based on a short story by Charles Lamb, and is a perfect foil to the more extravagant works that flank it.

And how wonderful to have a recording of the stunning arrangement of the Bach C minor Fantasia and Fugue that Elgar made when he was trying to cope with the creative paralysis that had come in the wake of Lady Elgar's death the previous year. To their enormous credit, Elder and the Hallé make no apologies for the Romantic orchestration; on the contrary, they revel in it. The recording does full justice to the harp glissandos and the rollicking brass parts, while delivering a truly grand overall sound.

If Mark Elder is indeed the most talented British conductor working today - and I have no doubt that he is - these recordings are gradually amounting to a very considerable legacy. This legacy is one of which the Hallé will, I am convinced, be as proud one day as they rightly are of that of the great Sir John Barbirolli.

Gwyn Parry-Jones




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