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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar conducts Elgar: the complete recordings 1914-1925
Track-listing at end of review
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1257 [4 CDs: 71:35 + 73:51 + 75:17 + 75:19]

Experience Classicsonline

Despite my interest in Elgar’s music, I’ve never made much of a study of his acoustic recordings. It’s not because of antipathy to the acoustic process, as many of my 78s are acoustics. And it’s not because the recordings have nothing to tell us; they do, and a considerable amount. Partly, I suppose, it stems from the fact that he re-recorded much on electric HMVs. Regarding his first recorded thoughts on the Cello Concerto, the later electric with Beatrice Harrison, the same soloist in the acoustic version, is demonstrably finer - and it’s also not ‘cut’. Of the Violin Concerto, with Marie Hall, only 16 minutes was recorded. And his major undertaking, the Second Symphony, was soon to be superseded as well by an electric version. The Enigma Variations is a similar case in point as are other works. Partly too, I have to say, I wasn’t desperately keen on the Pearl transfers. These were previously the only way, short of getting the 78s themselves, to play the complete acoustic set of discs [GEMM CDS 9951-55]. I often found my concentration waning and despite my admiration for the company and their outstanding work on behalf of historic recordings, which needs to be recognised and saluted, I didn’t feel that this represented their very best work in the field. Listening again for points of comparison, I have to admit that the transfers now sound perfectly reasonable and consonant with the majority of Pearl’s other work – minimal intervention, no noise suppression, a high-ish level of shellac noise, with decent copies utilised.
 
But now another opportunity has arisen. The discs come from Elgar’s own personal record library. Music & Arts make quite a thing of this and there is certainly a tangible feeling of association when one considers that each disc was owned and played by Elgar. After his collection was dispersed, one very adhesive individual – Arthur Reynolds - assiduously tracked down the discs and reconstructed the collection. I ought to point out that these are commercial copies; they are not test pressings. So there’s nothing inherently special about them, other than that they were all owned by the composer.
 
The chance presented by this newly engineered set has proved very useful to me, therefore, to acquaint myself better with this body of recordings. I can say that the Pearl set has been superseded by Lani Spahr’s work. True, maybe some specialists would have preferred the advantage that preservation of some open top provides – the associated hiss is a small price to pay – but I think those who have previously cringed at the thought of horn recordings will be very pleasantly surprised at the depth of frequency response that Spahr has conjured through the use of his restoration system.
 
A small point to note is that Pearl kept to a strict chronological run throughout their five discs which led to some to some discs lasting only 50 minutes or so. Music & Arts has not retained chronology and has therefore managed to fit the recordings onto four discs.
 
It’s when one sifts around to note what Elgar didn’t re-record, however, that the significance of the recordings becomes more apparent. Sea Pictures is the major one, but there are others. I will take the set disc by disc, adding a few thoughts along the way to point out salient features of recording or style.
 
His first ever recording was Carissima in January 1914, recorded in fact before the public premiere. There’s good depth to this and the pizzicati register well. The set, as noted, isn’t chronological, so the recordings jump around in time and space somewhat. Carissima is followed by the selection from The Sanguine Fan (never re-recorded) from 1920 – where one can hear the individual slides from the small group of string players. The Fringes of the Fleet is a major acquisition as this is one of the works Elgar never returned to. Charles Mott is the star baritone – he was soon to die on the Western Front – and the other singers are Frederick Stewart, Harry Barratt and Frederick Henry. Mott was a stirring and noble singer though he didn’t have much of a voice per se. Fate’s Discourtesy is a real Roast Beef number, splendidly declaimed, although Submarines is musically the most sophisticated and ingenious bit of writing – quite well conveyed despite the problems inherent in acoustic recording. The unaccompanied vocal Inside the Bar was recorded later than the rest of the work. Henry Ainley was an old friend of the Elgars and his narration (intact, uncut) in Carillon reminds us of the actor to whom, much later, Laurence Olivier became close – and again this is a unique opportunity to hear Elgar’s only recording of the piece and of Polonia too; it’s cut in half onto two sides of a 78. Four sides in total would have been needed to record it all. The first disc ends with the incidental music to The Starlight Express with Charles Mott, once again, and soprano Agnes Nicholls, Hamilton Harty’s wife. This fanciful piece was recorded in February 1916 and comes across well, not least the bell chimes, the First Noel theme and, especially, the Wagnerian Curfew Song – a tremendous song, by the way.
 
Disc 2 starts with a cruelly abridged Cockaigne – it lasts 4 minutes so don’t get your hopes up too high. Up to this point all the discs mentioned were recorded with the ‘Symphony Orchestra’, the generic name of an ad hoc band culled from London orchestras. But at this point we meet The Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Landon Ronald’s finest, and they perform In the South in 1923. This is a well judged and well balanced recording and very persuasively done. There are small cuts and some tempo extremes and ensemble weakness but it’s a vigorous and sensitive performance. I wonder who the viola player was? Then we have the two concertos. The Violin Concerto was a riposte to the very slightly earlier Columbia recording with Albert Sammons and Henry Wood which provoked HMV to action. Out came Elgar’s red pen and he produced his own compact version with his one-time pupil, Marie Hall. This performance has always strongly divided opinion. Hall was certainly coached by Elgar though other British artists or domiciled fiddlers could have taken it on and indeed had been more associated with it – John Dunn, for one, or Michael Zacharewitsch, though neither artist actually recorded for HMV, which would have been a problem. Hall did record for HMV. Her downward portamenti and her very slow slides and sluggish lower strings are very much a period feature, ones that will startle. Elgar’s solution to the cadenza was to place it on the third side and then start the finale on the final side, which will also startle but was an eminently practical piece of work.
 
The outer movements of the Cello Concerto bore the brunt of cutting. The soloist at the premiere had been Felix Salmond but he recorded for Columbia so HMV turned first to the famous Portuguese cellist Suggia – whose fee was excessive – and then to Beatrice Harrison. The performance differs little in effect from her electric recording though it can feel a touch rushed in the slow movement, and one or two of her slides are a bit ripe. This disc is completed by orchestral works. I don’t know what happened on 26 June 1914 but the reinforced bass and truly horrible string slides render Salut d’amour dead in the water. This is, in my view, probably Elgar’s worst recording of his own music, though I recall that Jerrold Northrop Moore, who knows about these things if anyone does, rated it very highly, indeed preferred it to the electrical remake of the late 1920s. The Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from Gerontius is a highly valuable and excellent 1917 recording, however, and redistributes admiration. So too the 1925 Meditation from The Light of Life – recorded just before electric recording came in.
 
A major omission from Elgar’s electric discography was Sea Pictures. Clara Butt had earlier, in 1912, recorded Where Corals Lie but for this recording in 1922-23 the Welsh contralto Leila Megane was selected. She makes a fine go of it, and if the recording isn’t quite up to some of the more opulent scoring, or to the upper part of Megane’s voice, we can still admire an appreciable performance. One stanza is cut from Where Corals Lie. Next is the Enigma Variations, sensibly entrusted to the RAHO not the ‘symphony orchestra’. This was recorded between February 1920 and May 1921, a hiatus caused by the death of Elgar’s wife. The reinforced bass line is rather too audible – it has serio-comic implications in Dorabella in particular - and the playing can be a bit scrappy. It’s a shame that Nimrod is cut. As a performance it’s a touch faster than the subsequent electric re-make. The two Pomp and Circumstance Marches he recorded acoustically were Nos. 1 and 4. They were products of 26 June 1914. There was serious cutting of the First and it’s remarkable how slowly he takes the trio, which was the main focus of the recording with the rest being mauled almost to oblivion. The companion March is taken at a better tempo, but again I have to say that this was the product of that very disappointing session, with once again lazy slides aplenty. As if to prove that things were in fact recoverable, The Marksman – from the Three Bavarian Dances – was also recorded on that day and is very much better. I suspect the players were much less familiar with it and had their heads down reading without the luxury of co-ordinating mass slides. The Bach and Handel works that end this CD are grandly and convincingly conveyed.
 
The final disc includes both The Wand of Youth suites with, altogether, six unpublished sides into the bargain. These unpublished or variant takes survived in Elgar’s own music library and were first released on the Pearl LP, and subsequently transferred to their CD. But the major undertaking, indeed Elgar’s biggest acoustic recording, was the 1924-25 version of the Second Symphony. It is uncut and Elgar directs the RAHO (with 50 players). Apart from one or two moments in the opening movement, when there’s a feeling of over-metricality, this is a magnificent achievement with some highly effective moments of almost chamber intimacy. It is, in many ways, the apotheosis of Elgar’s career in the studios thus far, and prefigures the glories enshrined in the electrical legacy to come.
 
This is an impressive box. The booklet is 35 pages long and includes year-by-year session commentary by Andrew Neill. There are excellent, well reproduced photographs. If, like me, you shied away from the bulk of these recordings before, I think now you need have no real fears. Incidentally for those who do purchase the set – four CDs priced as three, by the way – the following information I received from Music & Arts may be helpful:-

“Information received from Music & Arts regarding the booklet;
Page 5 – The 16 as in April is missing from the Light of Life session
Page 22 – line 17, change August for July and in line 20 change 14 August to 27 July
Page 6 – The Bach Fantasia was recorded on 26 October 1923 and the Fugue on 7 December not the other way around.
Page 13 – The picture of the acoustic recording session “in Milan” on Page 13 appears in the book "His Master's Voice" in America (edited by Frederick O. Barnum III) on Page 80 and there the same picture is identified as Rosario Bourdon conducting the Victor Orchestra in Camden, NJ in September, 1916.  We have been unable to resolve this contradiction.”
 
Jonathan Woolf
 
Track-listing

CD 1
Carissima (1914) [3:48]
The Sanguine Fan, Op. 81 (1917) [4:28]
The Fringes of the Fleet (1917) [17:38]
Frederick Stewart (Baritone), Harry Barratt (Baritone), Frederick Henry (Baritone), Charles Mott (Baritone)
Carillon, Op. 75 (1914) [7:06]
Polonia, Op. 76 (1915) [8:20]
Starlight Express, Op. 78 (1915) [30:05]
CD 2
Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40 "In London Town" (1900-01) [4:12]
In the South, Op. 50 "Alassio" (1903-04) [16:04] ¹
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra
Concerto for Violin in B minor, Op. 61 (1910) [16:01]
Marie Hall (Violin)
Concerto for Cello in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [16:10]
Beatrice Harrison (Cello)
Salut d'amour, Op. 12 (1889) [3:51]
Chanson de nuit, Op. 15 no 1 (1897) [4:10]
Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30 - A Little Bird (1894-96) [3:23] ¹
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900); Prelude and Softly and Gently "Angel's Farewell" [4:40]
The Light of Life, Op. 29: no 1, Meditation (1896) [4:50] ¹
CD 3
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899) [18:15]
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma" (1899) [26:15] ¹
Pomp and Circumstance Marches (5), Op. 39: no 1 in D major (1901) [4:32]
Pomp and Circumstance Marches (5), Op. 39: no 4 in G major (1907) [3:53]
Bavarian Dances (3) Op.27 (1895) [9:47]
Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, Op. 86 (Bach, BWV 537) (1922) [7:59] ¹
Chandos Anthems: no 2, In the Lord I put my trust, HWV 247 by George Frideric Handel (1717-18) orchestrated by Elgar [4:32] ¹
CD 4
The Wand of Youth Suite no 1, Op. 1a (1907) [9:45]
The Wand of Youth Suite no 1, Op. 1a (1907) unpublished takes [7:40]
The Wand of Youth Suite no 2, Op. 1b (1907) [8:40]
The Wand of Youth Suite no 2, Op. 1b (1907) unpublished takes [3:22]
Symphony no 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 (1911) [45:44] ¹
Symphony Orchestra/Edward Elgar
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra/Edward Elgar ¹
rec. 1914-25, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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