Chandos has reissued their February 1993 recording of Elgar’s
The Light of Life as part of their extensive Legacy
series devoted to the art of Richard Hickox.
It’s a work of embryonic, fitful quality. At its best
it’s resplendent and moving, whilst at its less-than-best
it can be earnest and rather jog-trotting, and somewhat under-characterised
too. One of the best moments is also perhaps the most well-known,
the opening Meditation - which has not quite yet
reached the status of that other extracted high point, the Méditation
from Thaïs. Yet the Meditation from Lux
Christi is impressive, with its strong anticipations of
Gerontius and the First Symphony in particular. It’s
a classic example of Elgar’s fluid orchestral style.
The Cantata of 1896 was originally given the Latin name but
the publisher Novello queried its - Catholic, by implication
or presumption - use for an Anglican festival, so Elgar backtracked
and gave it the name by which it’s now known.
Hickox has an intelligent and fluent quartet of vocal soloists,
and the exceptionally fine LSO chorus and orchestra. Arthur
Davies is the tenor, taking the part of the Blind Man, and his
tone is plangent and warm. Judith Howarth takes the part of
the Blind Man’s Mother and her voice is well suited to
the strongly Francophile Be Not Extreme, which sounds
as if it’s wandered in from Meyerbeer by mistake. Not
unattractively so, just rather incongruously, though Elgar’s
debt to French music, as much as to, say, Schumann can’t
be overlooked. But it can hardly be condemned and even here
Elgar’s distinctive fingerprints are ever-present.
Another purloiner, Wagner, courses throughout the aria Neither
Has This Man, in which Jesus appears, here portrayed by
John Shirley-Quirk. His noble persona is put wholly to the service
of the music, even though it would be foolish to contend that
he was still at his vocal peak. Linda Finnie, a touch uneven
in her recitative And when He has thus spoken, takes
the role of Narrator and does so with conspicuous gravity, its
Bachian antecedents clear but never overplayed.
Good though the solo arias and recitatives can be, it’s
most fascinating to listen to orchestral and choral passages,
especially the latter. They brought him to the Pharisees
offers an early sound seed for Gerontius, whilst elsewhere
Elgar’s wind writing is extraordinary attractive - never
translucent - he was hardly that sort of composer - but always
evocative. The Women’s Chorus proclaiming Woe to the
shepherd of the flock is, again, decidedly prophetic of
Gerontius, even The Kingdom. But it would be wrong
to present the work as wholly a dry run for far greater works
to come. It has its own strength and conviction. It also shows
how cannily Elgar paced scenes, how strongly he builds up to
the moving, understated simplicity of I am the Good Shepherd
and thenceforth to the final chorus Light of the World.
A choice between this recording and Charles Groves’ earlier
one with his Liverpool forces is not easy. The LSO chorus is
outstanding, the orchestra too, but Shirley-Quirk is heard in
more youthful voice in his first traversal with Groves.
Margaret Marshall, Helen Watts and Robin Leggate are the other
singers and they make a strong team. I prefer Davies to Leggate,
but only just. Marshall and Watts take my ear more than Finnie
and Howarth, Chandos’s sound is robust and attractive.
Generous critics at this point would recommend getting both,
but that’s not always helpful. My own preference, because
of the solo singing, is for Groves.
see also review by Rob