Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Light of Life (Lux Christi), Op. 29 (1896)
Judith Howarth (soprano); Linda Finnie (mezzo); Arthur Davies (tenor); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. February 1993, All Saints’ Church, Tooting
CHANDOS CHAN 10726X [62:48]
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.
A work of embryonic, fitful quality … at its best resplendent and moving.
see also review by Rob Barnett