The title of this set
puzzles me. Under the title of "The
Visionaries", the booklet gives
brief biographies of the artists taking
part, including the two choral societies
but excluding Marjorie Thomas. However,
it is clear from the cover that the
primary concern is with four conductors
– Boult, Collins, van Beinum and Sargent.
In my book, the word
"visionary", applied to a
conductor, means an artist who holds
constantly before him a particular philosophical,
spiritual or metaphysical view of the
world, which he seeks to realize in
his music-making. In the post-war years
the most obviously "visionary"
conductor must surely have been Sergiu
Celibidache. Of the conductors who have
recorded Elgar fairly extensively, Sinopoli,
like him or lump him, is probably the
nearest that fits the bill. Of the "historical"
Elgarians, those with roots going back
to Elgar’s own days, the absent Barbirolli,
with his intensely individual approach,
was surely more of a visionary than
the essentially practical musicians
we have here.
Of course, you could
argue that Boult’s concern with the
overall architecture of the music and
his idealistic search for the composer’s
own style were visionary in their way;
that van Beinum was in a similar mould;
and that Sargent’s visions of his own
popular success were expertly realized.
Nobody seems to know much about Collins.
But a musician who worked his way up
from orchestral playing through film
work – as composer and conductor – must
surely have been, above all, practical.
The introduction by
Barry Coward, proprietor of Beulah,
seems to confuse the word "vision"
with that of "view".
of Elgar that started in the late
1960s brought forth interpretations
that visualised Elgar as a romantic
Edwardian. The artists in this set,
all from the generation after Elgar,
had a different vision, one of an
But surely this was
because they were not visionaries.
Better, then, to take
this set simply as a useful grouping
of historical and semi-historical Elgar
recordings, some well-known, some already
available from Beulah and other companies
in alternative couplings, some much
rarer. We are not told the provenance
of the Boult "In the South"
and this may be a first issue.
Sargent is a figure
everyone knows "about". There
has not been much systematic exploration
of his recorded legacy. The First
Pomp and Circumstance March has
a confident strut and clean articulation.
The "Land of Hope and Glory"
theme is given its patriotic head in
a way Boult avoided, at least on his
Readers’ Digest/Chesky recording, which
is about a minute quicker. I’d say Sargent
would be preferable only if you want
to sing along. The same approach to
the fourth March bothered me
less, maybe because the big theme itself
is a mite less hackneyed. The performance
of the Imperial March actually
manages to avoid over-egging the pudding.
I don’t recollect having heard this
piece before. I should say it is the
sort of piece you could hear a good
many times without remembering that
you’d heard it before.
The premises might
seem to exist for a stiff-necked "Enigma".
Sargent’s heartfelt handling of the
theme and first variation quickly set
the mind at rest. We find in "Nimrod"
that he did not have that sense of line
over a long span that characterizes
the really great conductor and we hear
in a few of the brilliant variations
that the LSO was not then the superb
band it later became. On the other hand
the finale shows that he could be a
pretty inspiring presence on the rostrum
at his finest. Best of all are the several
variations which depend on flexibly
flowing tempi and a warm mix of colours.
In particular, the two last before the
finale, with their natural rubato, are
equal to any I have heard. There is
considerable distortion at climaxes
and it sounds to me as if a rather worn
copy of the LP has been used for the
transfer. This would prevent me going
back too often to what is actually a
highly rewarding performance. I wonder
if Decca themselves, with the original
tapes, could offer something better?
I note that, as late as 1967, EMG were
still listing the Ace of Clubs incarnation
of this recording with their maximum
two stars. Even allowing for the ears
of forty years ago, it seems to me they
must have heard something better than
we have here. Sargent also set down
a later stereo Enigma with the
Philharmonia for HMV.
As a footnote to these
comments, I should add that I listened
first on headphones. After hearing the
older van Beinum recordings on loudspeakers
and not finding similar distortion I
re-sampled the passages of "Enigma"
which I remembered as most compromised,
this time on loudspeakers. Generally,
the recording is much more enjoyable
in this form, but distortion is nonetheless
present, at the climax of "Nimrod"
for example. Whereas I listened to the
Campoli/Boult Violin Concerto for the
first time on headphones and had no
problems with the recording.
Sargent’s first Gerontius
is perhaps the recording of his
which has, more than any other, survived
the test of time. It is considered the
nearest in spirit to the version Elgar
himself might have given us – he only
left extracts. The post-war remake was
found relatively disappointing. All
the same, the excerpts here show Sargent
well in control of the ebb and flow
of the music.
I daresay one could
get involved with Lewis’s Gerontius
if one followed it from the beginning.
Plunging in at "Sanctus fortis"
I was unhappy with his portamentos and
his high-falutin’ upper-class vowels.
The voice, though easily produced, does
not have great body in fortes. A voice
from other times, you may say, except
that a sample of the recently-surfaced
Heddle Nash/Boult fragment on "Elgar
and his Interpreters" does not
reveal vowels we would not expect to
hear today. Nash’s voice had a more
confident ring to it and a greater expressive
range. Furthermore, both artists are
living really dangerously, tottering
on the brink in the way Lewis and Sargent
gently" gave me far more pleasure.
Though less touted, Thomas has a rich,
evenly produced voice and her pronunciation
contains no features that would surprise
us today. Flexibly assisted by Sargent,
she gives a perfect account. Not, though,
an experience to blazon itself on our
memories. For many listeners, entire
phrases of this music have become inseparable
from the way Janet Baker sang them in
the Barbirolli recording. If Thomas
does not penetrate our consciousness
at this level she is nonetheless far
more than coldly correct.
"I sing the
birth" was written for the
Royal Choral Society. The present performance,
recorded live – with a big cough to
prove it – was its second. As the note-writer
points out, Sargent improved the level
of the Royal Choral Society considerably
over the following years and this recording
must be considered merely a historical
curiosity. Any musical merit possessed
by the piece itself is certainly not
evident here, where it sounds dolefully
I appreciated the poetry
with which Sargent conducted the introduction
to "The Sun goeth down".
The ensuing problem is probably mine.
Isobel Baillie is one of those names
that British connoisseurs like to mention
with baited breath. The trouble is,
she was an exponent of what Anna Russell
cruelly described as the "pure
white, or Nymphs and Shepherds style
of singing". I could only grit
my teeth and thank my lucky stars that
no one would sing like that today. Not
everything was golden in the golden
Boult’s last recording
of "In the South"
comes from an LP of the overtures that
some Elgarians found disappointing.
I’ve never been among them. I love that
late "In the South"
for its flow and flexibility, everything
bathed in Corot-like sunset colours.
I can quite well hear that this is achieved
at some cost to sheer precision but
this has never worried me, and for me
the sunset glow more than makes up for
any lessening in dynamism. Those who
don’t agree should be well content with
the new discovery which, given the date
and the circumstances, came as a heartfelt
tribute to Italy, where the Fascist
dictatorship had fallen a few months
earlier and which was therefore a friend
once more. The basic interpretation
isn’t far different – five seconds shorter
in 1944 – but there is more obvious
conductorial control. In later years
Boult was inclined to concentrate on
the general line and spirit and not
worry about the odd fuzzy attack. Back
in 1944 he was still taking his responsibilities
seriously as orchestral trainer and
things like sharp accents or brilliant
passage work would be rehearsed for
their own sake as well as their place
in the overall view. This would not
be enough to make me sacrifice the later
version in excellent stereo, but some
may feel differently. A worthwhile addition
to our knowledge of the conductor, in
recently about the late "In
the South" and the last of
Boult’s five versions of Elgar 2. Again,
my contention that the latter is one
of the great Boult records is not shared
by all Elgarians. The differences are
felt from the start. In the late version
we can hear how the sinking bass-line
is undermining the imperialist sentiments
even in the opening bars. In 1944 Boult
gives the sheer exuberance of the writing
its head, and then is masterly in portraying
the gradual retreat into private meditation.
We can say that the younger Boult brought
out the extremes in the music, and then
balanced them against each other, while
the older Boult sought out the interrelations
between the ideas. Let us remember,
though, that the "younger Boult"
was already separated by nearly a quarter
of a century from the famous 1920 performance
that put the symphony on the map, and
was within five years of his unceremonious
pensioning-off by those-powers-that-be
at the BBC. So the 1944 performance
could already be a midway point in a
much longer process.
I have never subscribed
to the view that Boult gives us a cushioned
view of this music. Some of the more
dramatic writing, in the scherzo for
instance, is quite brutally violent
in 1944 while the passages of dejection
and withdrawal are poignantly achieved.
But then my reactions towards Elgar’s
own recording are more ambivalent
than that of many of my colleagues.
Those who feel that Boult went to far
in balancing the disparate elements
in the 1970s may wonder if the ideal
solution is not to be found in his middle
recordings. Unfortunately I only know
the third, set down with the Scottish
National Orchestra in the early 1960s
and compromised by scrappy playing,
especially during the first ten minutes
or so. I do not know the highly-regarded
Pye version from the 1950s or the Lyrita
recording which is now available again.
So perhaps I shall be returning to this
For those who choose
violin concertos by the conductor –
hardly the best system, but a conductor
can make or break this work – this is
Boult’s earliest version and the one
to have. Menuhin in the 1960s was unable
to recapture the spirit of his youthful
performance with Elgar himself. As for
Ida Haendel in the 1970s, it was a bit
late in the day for both of them.
As in the symphony
ten years earlier, Boult was ready to
provide blazing energy but also to chart
the withdrawals into private meditation.
Just to give one example of his perceptive
conducting, note how, in the second
theme of the first movement, the inner
string lines come to the fore when they
move, then retreat into the general
Alfredo Campoli was
a much-loved artist who set down most
of the standard repertoire for Decca
during the 1950s. His unfailingly warm,
sympathetic tone and phrasing are at
one with Elgar’s romantic yearnings.
He also provides brilliance, though
if it’s quick-fire virtuosity you want
then there are those who deliver more.
With its overriding sweetness this may
be the closest we have to the Kreisler
recording that was never made. For this,
and the authority of the conductor,
it is a worthy companion to the first
complete version, by Sammons and Wood,
and the famous Menuhin/Elgar. As for
later traversals, Heifetz is always
Heifetz and, from the later LP era,
many have a special affection for Hugh
Bean with Sir Charles Groves. With the
CD age this work became fully international
and, if you have a favourite violinist,
he/she’s probably recorded it.
All the same, I feel
about this rather as I do about the
Pini Cello Concerto. As a statement
of Elgarian basics it still stands above
the crowd. The recording still sounds
remarkably lifelike, too. The strings
have brilliance without artificiality
and the brass bray trenchantly. Strange
that it should be so much better than
the Sargent "Enigma" of the
Eduard van Beinum,
Anthony Collins, Albert Coates
I have already
discussed the Beulah disc devoted
to van Beinum’s complete Elgar recordings.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the two
major works again and see no reason
to revise my earlier comments. I wondered,
this time round, if the recording had
not been tweaked a little too much for
brilliance. In places it sounds incredibly
good, at others it has a paint-stripping
quality. It seems to depend on which
frequency the main melodic interest
happens to be in. The trouble with tweaking
old recordings is that improving one
frequency area often creates problems
in another. Better too little than too
much, therefore. Still, the main thing
is that these classic performances can
still be heard.
Anthony Collins is
perhaps the figure here whose musical
profile is least clear. A pupil of Holst,
an orchestral player who rose to lead
the LSO violas in the 1930s before turning
to conducting and a regular composer/conductor
of film music in the RKO studios during
the war, he was nothing if not a skilled
professional. On Decca, his cycle of
Sibelius symphonies was the first to
be generally available and has maintained
a high reputation over the years. He
recorded Delius more extensively than
anyone except Beecham in the 1950s.
His Elgar recordings, which also include
the Serenade, have already been issued
by Beulah – 1PD15 – and were mainstays
of the early LP catalogue. There were
also a couple of pieces by Vaughan Williams,
he accompanied Gervase de Peyer in his
first recording of the Mozart Clarinet
Concerto and Peter Katin in the Mendelssohn
Piano Concertos. A coupling of Mozart
Symphonies used to be available on Classics
Of the two performances
here I was most impressed by the Introduction
and Allegro. It avoids extremes
but it shows a rare understanding of
how the different ideas flow one from
another – no doubt this was what made
his Sibelius so successful. Most performances
prefer to emphasize the contrasts in
this piece, so Collins has something
attractively individual to offer.
is generally excellent, too.
In the second dream episode I found
him very ordinary compared with Boult’s
quite rapt handling in his last recording,
which offers pure magic. I happen to
like the sunset glow with which Boult
invests the entire work in that recording,
but some Elgarians point to a shortage
of vitality and some scrappy ensemble.
I feel that many other moments could
be quoted – rowdy ones as well as poetic
ones – where Boult even in his last
years shows the hand of a master where
Collins is just very good. I do admit
that immediately after the second Interlude,
Collins is more urgent in Falstaff’s
last fruitless dash to London, only
to be rejected by the newly crowned
King. It is in any case another useful
piece of basic Elgar conducting, well
worth hearing. For many, Barbirolli
reigns supreme in this particular piece.
Of the two baroque
arrangements, the Handel was new
to me, while I knew the Bach from Boult’s
recording, which originally shared an
LP with Falstaff and The Sanguine
Fan. Coates’s characteristic zest
is much in evidence and I could prefer
his fugue to Boult’s, while Boult finds
a more measured nobility in the Fantasia.
But if you want to hear these sumptuous
baroque arrangements, you will surely
want to hear them in all their orchestral
glory, in which case Boult’s 1970s stereo
would seem the very minimum acceptable.
In conclusion, I found
a great deal to interest me in this
collection, but I am left wondering
quite who it is aimed at. The experienced
Elgarian will have a lot of the material
already, much of it from Beulah themselves
– they have previously issued Boult’s
Second Symphony coupled with Sospiri
and the Gerontius Prelude
(3PD15) and Campoli’s Violin Concerto
with the Mendelssohn (4PD10). As a collection
of basic Elgar performances for a first-time
collector with undemanding equipment,
the absence of the 1st Symphony
and the 78 provenance of several of
the recordings is a considerable limitation.
However, if you have collected the major
Elgar works in recent recordings and
are wondering how an earlier generation
of interpreters approached his music,
well, here’s a good way to find out.