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
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.