I must confess that I have always been in two minds about Elgar’s
songs. Though he wrote them for most of his composing life, they
do not seem to have been entirely central to his composing. With
some composers, even though song is not essential to them, you
can sense them pushing and stretching the form, using it as a
cauldron of new ideas. Elgar’s songs definitely have far more
about them than the usual Edwardian parlour ballads, but only
in one or two do we detect the voice of the Elgar familiar from
the larger-scale works.
Perhaps one of
the problems is that Elgar is writing in English, setting
generally rather indifferent poets. On this new disc, the
first of a promised complete Elgar songs from Channel Classics,
the predominant tone of the words is that of Elgar’s Victorian
and Edwardian contemporaries. This requires some work from
singer and pianist to overcome the aura of the parlour, and
it is to the credit of singers Amanda Roocroft and Konrad
Jarnot and pianist Reinild Mees that they succeed.
of songs is not chronological; it ranges widely from 1875
to 1909 though the majority of the songs date from around
the time of The Dream of Gerontius and after; in fact
one of the curiosities of Elgar’s song-writing is that he
wrote so few in his youth. That said, The Self Banished,
which opens the recital dates from 1875 and represents an
impressive debut as a song-writer, Elgar was just 18 when
he wrote it and it remained unknown, unpublished until recently.
is allocated the first batch of songs. Roocroft has an attractive
warm voice with fine diction and a good sense of line. She
also has a significant vibrato, this is expressive rather
than intrusive but the recording has perhaps caught her voice
a little too closely so that we are slightly too aware of
the vibrato. Her voice, at times, lacks allure and a feeling
of evenness. But she is a highly communicative singer and
gives a fine committed performance which convinces us that
she believes in these songs.
Not all the songs
in this group are of equal interest. But The Wind at Dawn,
which sets a poem by Elgar’s future wife Alice, has a richly
textured vocal line accompanied by a strong piano part, which
Elgar later orchestrated; in his admirable CD notes Lewis
Foreman describes this as ‘to all intents and purposes, a
sixth Sea Picture’.
survey of Elgar’s songs must encompass the Sea Pictures.
Elgar himself performed these on the piano with the work’s
first soloist, Clara Butt, so it is quite reasonable to include
them here. Reinild Mees makes an admirable job of the piano
part and almost helps us forget the orchestral version. As
if to aid this, Channel Classics have taken the decision to
allocate the vocal line to a baritone rather than a contralto.
Nothing is said about this in Foreman’s notes and I have no
knowledge whether Elgar would have been happy with this or
not. All we can do is listen and make our own judgement.
makes an admirable job of it, singing with firm ringing voice
and a lovely breadth of tone. He makes a superb job of the
songs’ climaxes, delivering with a clear, ringing top. But
when they descend to the depths, things are less happy. Partly
it is because the vocal lines are harder to articulate an
octave below what they were supposed to be sung, and partly
because the transposition leaves strange gaps between the
piano part and the vocal line. This baritone version of the
songs is not one which I would want to listen to every day,
and I would hope perhaps that a future volume in this series
might include the contralto version as well. But Jarnot and
Mees make a strong team and Jarnot delivers Elgar’s fine songs
with passion and commitment.
Jarnot also sings
the final four songs in the recital. Here the transposition
to baritone seems happier, or perhaps I am more forgiving
because the songs are less familiar. Whatever the reason,
Jarnot’s passionate delivery of them is entirely convincing.
This is a fascinating
disc and I look forward to the remainder of the series. The
performances are strong and convincing, both singers have
fine diction and convey both the music and the text in a way
which is wholly admirable and necessary in this style of song.
Reinild Mees makes a good accompanist with good feeling for
the orchestral nature of Elgar’s piano parts.
If only the recording
had captured Roocroft’s voice in a rather more alluring, flattering
light, this would have been a stunning release. As it is, these
committed performances are essential listening for anyone interested
in English song and the music of Elgar.