Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures Op. 37* [23:50]
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major Op. 55 [48:28]
Dame Janet Baker (alto)*
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London 23 February 1984. ADD.
English texts included
LPO 0046 [72:18]

This disc contains music that was performed at a concert mounted by the LPO and The Elgar Society to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Elgar’s death; what else was included in the first half, along with Sea Pictures, I wonder? As Andrew Neill writes in the booklet, since Sir Adrian Boult had died the previous year there really could be no other choice of conductor than ‘Tod’ Handley. By the same token, once the decision had been taken to include Sea Pictures in the programme then the choice of soloist was obvious. Dame Janet Baker was regarded as pre-eminent in these songs at the time and, indeed, her famous recording with Barbirolli (review), made nearly twenty years before this concert, had done an enormous amount to raise the profile of Elgar’s only song-cycle - it remains a benchmark account even to this day.

With the passage of the years Dame Janet’s voice had deepened somewhat - she’s billed here as a contralto but was described as a mezzo-soprano when she made the EMI recording. Her performance here will be familiar to all those who own the EMI studio recording. I don’t mean that as a negative comment; rather it indicates consistency. And although her voice as heard here has deeper hues, not audible in the Barbirolli performance, the high notes are all still there. As to the interpretation, well she displays complete identification with and commitment to Elgar’s music. At first I thought her voice was a bit backward in the aural picture but, actually, what one is hearing is a more realistic concert hall balance, as compared to a studio recording. I may be mistaken but I don’t think the ad lib organ part in the third and fifth songs is included in this performance - or if it is, it doesn’t make any impact. That’s a pity because the organ can add a thrilling extra dimension. However, even without the organ this is a fine and dedicated performance - and to make up for the omission of the organ the tam-tam registers very satisfactorily at several points

Handley was a first rate interpreter of the Elgar First Symphony - I’d bracket him with Boult and Barbirolli, though his conception is much closer to that of the former. He’d made a celebrated studio recording of the piece with the LPO in 1979 and that version has long been a favourite of mine, first on LP and then on CD. Reviewing the recording on MusicWeb International, Gwyn Parry-Jones very justly observed that it’s “a mature, totally idiomatic and deeply affectionate performance”. He went to the heart of it when he observed: “It is Handley’s pacing of the work that is so impressive”.

The motto theme unfolds with a simple, natural dignity at the very opening of the symphony and, just as on the commercial disc, one feels that the pace is just right. When the main allegro is reached, Handley doesn’t rush the music off its feet - I was always a trifle disconcerted by Solti’s electrifying pacing on his Decca recording, for example - but all the necessary excitement is there. And, because the core pacing of the allegro is so judicious then when Elgar relaxes Handley can do so too without any sensation of applying the brakes. Reviewing recently a 1956 recording of the Second Symphony by Sir Adrian Boult, I referred to the crucial ebb and flow in Elgar’s music. That’s just as important a feature of the First Symphony and Handley’s control of this is impressive.

The scherzo combines deft precision and swagger and the trio section is voiced with all the delicacy one could wish for. Handley negotiates the imaginative wind-down of the scherzo into the adagio with consummate skill. The slow movement itself, one of Elgar’s most inspired creations, is noble and glowing. What a miraculous transformation Elgar effects to make the scurrying motif that introduces the scherzo into such a glorious, expansive slow movement theme! Handley never overplays his hand but he still contrives to give a really moving account of this music and the LPO responds to his direction with really dedicated playing.

Ushered in mysteriously, the lento introduction to the finale is splendidly controlled by Handley, who maintains a palpable tension. Thus when the main allegro bursts into life the impact is as great as it should be and the music has the requisite thrusting energy. Later, after the turbulent development, we reach that marvellous moment (6:17) when Elgar brings back the ghostly march with which the lento began. But now it’s transformed into a glorious cantabile melody for the strings, adorned by harp. It’s one of the most affecting moments in all Elgar and Handley does it masterfully. The ending is glorious; the motto theme returns in triumph and Handley and his players bring the work to a majestic conclusion. I wouldn’t say that this performance supplants the conductor’s studio performance, though it has an undoubted electricity, stemming, no doubt, from the occasion. However, it’s marvellously complementary to that commercial recording and the ovation at the end is fully justified.

The recording, which originates from a Capital Radio broadcast, may strike some listeners as a little less than ideal. The microphones may have been placed at a distance from the platform so the sound lacks some immediacy as compared to a studio recording. On the other hand, I feel one gets a concert hall perspective in both works and I found the sound perfectly acceptable.

I hope that the LPO will root around in their archives and issue some more recordings conducted by Vernon Handley, especially if they can unearth some performances of pieces that he never recorded commercially. In the meantime, this disc is a welcome souvenir of a conductor, who is still much-missed, in music from the core of his repertoire.

John Quinn

A welcome souvenir of a conductor, who is still much-missed, in music from the core of his repertoire.