Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Longed for Light - Elgar’s Music in Wartime
Polonia (1915) [13:20]
Carillon for speaker and orchestra (1914) [8:27]
Sospiri (1914) [4:52]
Une Voix dans le Désert for speaker, soprano and orchestra (1915)
Carissima (1914) [3:52]
Le Drapeau Belge for speaker and orchestra (1917) [3:27]
The Sanguine Fan, ballet music (1917) [17:59]
Sursum Corda (1894) [8:39]
Simon Callow (speaker); Susan Gritton (soprano)
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. Watford Colosseum, 13-15 February 2012
SOMM CD247 [75:10]
Elgar was deeply distressed by the events of the Great War - and the War greatly
influenced his musical output as this collection testifies. Not included here,
of necessity, considering their length, are: The Spirit of England (considered
by Jerrold Northrop Moore to be Elgar’s ‘sleeper’) and his
substantial score for the children’s play The Starlight Express.
The opening bars of Wilson’s Polonia, Elgar’s tribute to
the people of Poland, signal a performance that has great sweep and attack.
The music mixes patriotic themes and music by Chopin and Paderewski with Elgar’s
original material. Wilson also delivers some nicely judged nuances and felicities
and a beautifully-shaped violin solo. But then so did Boult in his magnificent
1974 recording and I do miss Boult’s more affecting, more slowly-unfolding
treatment of the ‘With Smoke of Fires’ chorale at its first appearance
The Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts’ agonised poetry for his country’s
sufferings inspired Elgar three times: Carillon;Une Voix dans le Désert
and Le Drapeau Belge.John Wilson’s accompaniments are consistently
noble and proud, poignant and heartrending. Susan Gritton’s plaintive
expression of hope “When the spring comes round again”, her song
arising from the shattered cottage on the ravaged front line so movingly lifts
the desolation of Une Voix dans le Désert. The problem as I see
it, with these three narratives with orchestra, is the affected, too dramatic
readings of Simon Callow. He is clearly moved by his material and you can sense
that he is on the verge of tears as he reads from Carillon: “With
branches of beech, flaming beech, To the sound of the drum, We’ll cover
the graves of our children.” Repeated listening to his mannered delivery
just irritates this reviewer. To my mind Richard Pasco’s more restrained,
more dignified readings on a competitive CD of Elgar’s War Music
- Pearl SHE CD9601 are to be preferred.
Between these pieces and The Sanguine Fan, the most substantial work
in this collection the three shorter romantic, nostalgic pieces all receive
graceful performances. Sospiri all gentle sighs, Carissima charms
and Rosemary (‘That’s for remembrance’) waltzes poignantly.
The Sanguine Fan was a ballet conceived and produced for a wartime charity
concert. Its inspiration had been a drawing in sanguine on a fan. It depicted
figures in 18th century dress overlooked by trees with cupids beckoning
and to the left Echo and Pan with their backs to the humans. From this drawing
Ina Lowther, the granddaughter of a former vicar of Malvern, was inspired to
write the ballet’s story. In brief, a group of lovers dance, within the
trees before the shrine of Eros. One couple quarrel and they part. The man curses
Eros and is then beguiled by Echo who is also beloved by Pan. On awakening Pan
is furious and strikes the man dead before running off into the trees, laughing.
The dead man’s lover is devastated. The Sanguine Fan is a charming
work; lyrical and darkly dramatic. Wilson responds enthusiastically to its diverse
moods delivering a performance that outshines even Boult’s in its rhythmic
strength and flexibility and in its subtle nuances. Surely dancers would appreciate
Wilson conducting a production of this underestimated work?
Sursum Corda dates back to 1894 but its solemn elegiac qualities make
it an ideal composition to round off this concert - stoical grief recollected
in proud majesty.
Majesty and grief delivered in the grand manner but Oh that OTT narration!