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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Froissart op. 19 [13:43] (1)
Cello Concerto in E minor op. 85 [31:12] (2)
Variations on an Original Theme – “Enigma” op. 36 [31:21] (3)
The Wand of Youth – Suites nos. 1 op. 1a [19:55] and 2 op. 1b [16:51] (4)
The Starlight Express: Songs [29:44] (5)
Dream Children op. 26 [07:26] (6)
Alison Hagley (soprano) (5), Bryn Terfel (bas-baritone) (5), Robert Cohen (cello) (2), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1-3), Welsh National Opera Orchestra (4-6)/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. February 1992, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London (1-3), December 1990, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales (4-6)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4428280 [76:38 + 74:26]
Experience Classicsonline

The particular nature of Elgar’s orchestral output means that it come on CD in all sorts of couplings. It would not be all that easy to assemble a complete series of the major works in good performances without several duplications on the way. Since the music lends itself to a wide number of interpretative stances, perhaps this is all to the good. However, anyone starting a collection who bought, on my recommendation, the 2-CD set of Boult’s performances of the symphonies and a few other works may be encouraged to know that the present issue doesn’t duplicate anything at all and also offers a quite different angle on the music. If you’re after basic Elgar you’ll still need, as far as the orchestral side goes, Falstaff, the Violin Concerto and Cockaigne.

It is possible, of course, that EMI will gradually bring out the rest of their Boult/Elgar recordings. Since I have all the present works under Boult in LP or CD format – except “The Starlight Express” which he didn’t record – I’ll make him my point of reference.

In a long career, Sir Charles Mackerras has amassed a staggering discography covering most musical periods and styles. Probably more of his recordings than those by any other conductor have remained front-runners for the work in question. Even when not, I don’t remember ever reading a review which suggested he was right off the beam for that particular piece, or that he just wasn’t on form. Yet he has never been particularly associated with Elgar and I was rather curious as to how he would approach him.

The secret of Mackerras’s success perhaps lies in his ability to penetrate a wide range of musical styles. While in Mozart he may seem something of a strict-time conductor, in Elgar he understands perfectly the continual ebb and flow of the music, the flexibility within a phrase. Though he can summon up swagger and vitality when called for, what I find memorable here is his evocation of Elgar’s nostalgia. If this differentiates him from Boult’s more structural approach, the actual sound he draws from the orchestra is generally delicate, luminous, even diaphanous. As a result he is equally distant from Barbirolli’s “con amore” manner.

His one miscalculation seems to me to come very near the beginning of the first disc. Adopting a “living for the moment” method in “Froissart” means that the music practically stops within a minute of its beginning when the chorale-like theme is introduced. This is the sort of moment where Boult tends to be supreme. He gives this new idea all the character it needs but in parenthesis, as it were, without stopping the flow. Since this early work is teeming with ideas but inclined to sprawl I feel that Boult is more effective in holding it together. I recognize, though, that Mackerras gets more pointed playing and characterizes certain moments more vividly. I am speaking of the 1972 Boult, there’s one from 1956 that I don’t know.

At the beginning of the Cello Concerto both Cohen and Mackerras announce a very expansive manner, with expressive pauses before sinking into each new idea. It’s impossible to know if this is Mackerras’s own view or whether he is just being a sympathetic accompanist, but he certainly sounds as if he believes in it. This is very much a post-Du Pré/Barbirolli performance, even managing to add a further minute-and-a-half to the role-model and about six to Elgar’s own recording with Beatrice Harrison. Here, I think, lies the problem. Since the fast music goes at about the same speed in all performances, extending the slow parts by six minutes alters the proportion of slow music to fast, as well as practically creating a further slow movement by treating the first movement as one, rather than “Moderato” as marked. However beautifully the individual moments are managed, and they certainly are, the work seems to me to be pulled out of shape. Possibly the Harrison/Elgar recording despatches certain sections somewhat briskly, but the Anthony Pini/Van Beinum and Tortelier/Boult, which both add just about a minute, seem to have all the time in the world to express the music. Still, as I say, the present performance is obviously a most deeply-felt affair.

Certain parts of Mackerras’s “Enigma” came as a revelation to me. He probes continually into the texture, bringing out single strands that are often passed over, his flexible phrasing sometimes lingering on small phrases or even single notes, yet never with any suggestion of wallowing for its own sake. I am grateful for the experience, yet I feel I would return to it only rarely, since a performance like this has to be taken as a commentary on more basic ones. Boult’s 1962 recording – I don’t know the later one – is certainly a basic interpretation but maybe a bit too plain-sailing. Back in 1936 Boult was amazingly electric and taut with a timing of only 26:08. Like certain Toscanini recordings, I find myself a bit breathless listening to it. But, whatever you think of the Mackerras for a basic interpretation, I think all Elgarians will find it richly rewarding. This is actually his second recording of the work; slightly earlier (1985) he coupled it with “Falstaff” for EMI.

If “Enigma” was perhaps not one of the Elgar works where Boult was supreme, his LP based around the “Wand of Youth” Suites was one of his finest. At first it seemed that Mackerras would be a little too bright and chirpy. Boult finds a Schubertian melancholy in the “Serenade” which Mackerras misses, for instance. But then Mackerras draws out the two slow numbers – “Fairy Pipers” and “Slumber Scene” – tenderly and exquisitely and it is as though he has now twigged on to the fact that this is not just pretty light music but great music. No less than Boult his fairies are mysterious and his giants frightening in the last piece of the First Suite. Moreover, he draws out the disturbing undercurrents of the march which opens the Second Suite as effectively as Boult. But it is in “Little Bells” and “Fountain Dance” that I find Mackerras has special insights. Perhaps it his operatic experience which allows him to paint vivid, imaginative little scenes by the side of which Boult seems a touch too literal. So it would seem a case of even honours – Boult preferable in the First Suite, Mackerras in the Second. If you have a taste for historical recordings, don’t miss Van Beinum in this music either (see link above).

One characteristic which Mackerras shares with Boult is that, when he records little-known music, it sounds as if he has known it all his life. I can’t think Mackerras has had many encounters with “The Starlight Express”, but he shows the same confident control of Elgarian ebb and flow as he does in “Enigma”. Terfel is in splendid form. Elgar sets up an unenviable challenge to the soprano in “I’m everywhere” with which Alison Hagley battles manfully; thereafter she is warm and sympathetic with a bright quality well suited to the music. The two are well matched in the final duets, magically paced by Mackerras. The excellent notes by Raymond Tuttle do not spoil the fun by telling you what very famous tune is going to well out of the orchestra just before the end, so I won’t either – there’s no enigma about this one!

And so to “Dream Children”. Mackerras is about 50% slower than Boult in the first piece, quite a bit slower in the second. I’m inclined to think these must be the outside tempi – in either direction – at which the music will work. Boult’s mastery of phrasing shows he can find tenderness, mystery and depth at a flowing pace, Mackerras shows he can savour every moment without getting stuck. If you have both you’ll certainly have a three-dimensional view of the music.

It looks as if Mackerras might be a more important interpreter of Elgar than is normally supposed. He also set down the Symphonies at this time; probably the uncertain survival of the Argo label reduced their circulation. Maybe Eloquence are eyeing these too?

Christopher Howell 



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