English String Music
Edward ELGAR (1857 – 1934) Introduction and Allegro, op.47 (1905) [14:06]; Serenade in E minor, op.20 [13:12]; Elegy, op.58 (1909) [4:30]; Sospiri, op.70 (1914) [5:17]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [16:20]; Fantasia on Greensleeves (1929) [4:39]
Frederick DELIUS (1862 – 1934) Brigg Fair:An English Rhapsody (1908) [18:17]
Allegri Quartet (Eli Goren and James Barton (violins), Patrick Ireland (viola), William Pleeth (cello)), Sinfonia of London, New Philharmonia Orchestra (Elegy and Sospiri only) Hallé Orchestra (Delius only)/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 10-11 May 1962 (Introduction and Allegro, Serenade and Greensleeves), 16 July 1966 (Elegy and Sospiri), 15-17 July 1970 (Delius), Kingsway Hall, London and 17 May 1962 (Tallis Fantasia), Temple Church, London. ADD
Re–issues of LPs: ASD 521 and parts of ASD 2292 and ASD 2635
CD first issued in the GROC series
EMI CLASSICS MASTERS 6 31788 2 [76:27]

English String Music is the name of one of Glorious John’s very best LPs, and it has long been seen as a touchstone of great string playing, and of great English string music. This is Barbirolli at the peak of his career, directing music he loves. Indeed, it is one of the great records; a miraculous achievement of the right personnel, the right conductor and the right repertoire. Rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!, Elgar wrote at the head of his 2nd Symphony, and the same could be said of this recording. These performances defy criticism, so I am not going to criticise merely introduce them to those unfortunate not to have heard them.

The Introduction and Allegro and Tallis Fantasia both have the addition of the original Allegri Quartet – shame on EMI for not making mention of their participation in large print on the cover of the booklet – and how well the four players complement the massed strings, and join in the fabulous music-making. JB made the first two recordings of the Introduction and Allegro – Elgar never recorded it but knew Barbirolli’s recordings, saying that he had never realised what a big piece it was! Barbirolli’s second (1929) recording of the work can be found on Barbirolli Society (CDSJB 1999 – a 2 CD set of varied material). In JB’s hands it is a big piece – I have never heard it sound so full and resplendent – and he pulls out all the stops for this performance, giving a powerhouse of a performance. On top of that there is the marvellous moment, at 9:46 where the great William Pleeth leads the music into the recapitulation – sensational!

The Serenade receives a bit of a hothouse performance but it can stand this con amore approach for JB is utterly sincere in his direction. He even proves that the slow movement is, quite obviously, the forerunner of the great slow movements in the Symphonies.

The Tallis Fantasia gains from being recorded in the Temple Church and that acoustic lets the music breathe and expand to fill the space. It also allows for the distant orchestra to be heard clearly in relation to the full body of strings. And just listen to JB’s magnificent use of rubato at 10:48. Superb!

The Greensleeves Fantasia brought that LP to a delectable conclusion, and it is a lovely sweetmeat, before Delius’s visit to the countryside. Thus ends English String Music, the LP. The only thing which could have made it perfect would have been a reprint of Burnett James’s original sleeve-notes!

The Elegy – Elgar’s epitaph for his friend A.E. Jaeger, Nimrod of the Enigma – and Sospiri come from an LP of Elgar’s music, which included the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches – what a suite of music that is! They are both deeply-felt works and JB brings out all the longing and pathos of the music in beautifully understated performances.

This recording of Brigg Fair comes from JB’s last recording session and what a performance it is! JB’s Delius is more romantic, more languid, than Beecham’s, but it is equally valid. This performance makes Brigg Fair into the symphonic movement it so obvious is – it’s more coherent, with regard to form, than much of Delius, but it’s seldom seen that way. JB characterises each variation well and the funeral march is especially impressive.

These transfers are exemplary. The notes, by the wonderful Michael Kennedy are excellent. If this disk isn’t in your collection it should be. There is no excuse for its omission. This is perfection. It’s true. They really don’t make them like this any more.

Bob Briggs

These performances defy criticism. They really don’t make them like this any more.