Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar conducts Elgar - the complete recordings 1914-1925
see end of review for track listing
Symphony Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall Orchestra ¹/Sir Edward Elgar
rec. 1914-25, London
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1257 [4 CDs: 71:35 + 73:51 + 75:17 + 75:19]
My colleague, Jonathan Woolf has already appraised this set with characteristic thoroughness. Jonathan has the advantage over me in that he has heard all these recordings before in their Pearl incarnation, which I’ve never encountered. He is also much more au fait with acoustic recordings and 78s than I am. So his review is required reading, not least because he comments in some detail on the previous CD transfer of these recordings by Pearl, which many collectors may already own.
EMI’s handsome three-volume edition of all Elgar’s electric recordings of his music has long occupied a place of honour on my shelves. How fortunate we are that, until Britten, no British composer - probably no composer at all - was given so many opportunities to record his own music. There have been debates as to whether, even in the electrical age, Elgar adopted faster speeds in the studio than on the concert platform simply to accommodate the restrictions at the time of the recording process. That’s a debate that, in all probability, can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. However, Elgar was an assiduous recording artist and I think we can safely assume that he was satisfied with the results he achieved in the studio - speeds and all - or he would never have passed the records for issue. So we have a precious legacy and these acoustic recordings, despite their limitations, constitute a very important part of that legacy.
Before discussing the recordings I must congratulate Music & Arts on the splendid presentation. The substantial booklet contains all the recording details - dates, matrix numbers etc - that one would expect. One or two corrections have been noted in Jonathan’s review. What really distinguishes the booklet, however, is the detailed, authoritative and highly readable essay by Andrew Neill, past chairman of the Elgar Society. This is enhanced by a wonderful selection of interesting and evocative photos. For the Elgar lover this booklet is invaluable - and pure pleasure. The source for these new transfers will also be of interest to Elgar aficionados. All the records used belonged to Elgar himself but the collection was dispersed on his death among family and friends. A member of the Elgar, Society, Arthur Reynolds, led the work of painstakingly tracking them all down and Lani Spahr, another Elgar Society member, has transferred them to CD for Music & Arts.
Elgar re-recorded most of the pieces included here once electrical recording became possible. However, The Fringes of the Fleet and Sea Pictures, were never repeated. To be candid, I’m not sure the former is any great loss. These Kipling songs are very much period pieces - and the singers here deliver them, obviously, in the style of the time. Having said that, these 1917 recordings offer an invaluable window through which we can glimpse an aspect of Elgar’s world at the time and it’s poignant to hear the voice of Charles Mott, the principal singer here, who was killed in action less than a year after these sessions. Collectors wanting a modern version should bear in mind the Somm disc that came out a couple of years ago (review). If The Fringes of the Fleet lies on the fringes (sorry!) of Elgar’s output Sea Pictures is much more central and so Elgar’s sole recording of it is priceless. The recordings, set down in 1922 and 1923, feature a singer previously unknown to me, Leila Megane, a Welsh contralto. She’s pretty good; her singing is notable for its clear diction and her firm, round tone. She’s commandingly excellent at “These shall assist me to look higher” in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’. Her voice is recorded prominently, which is understandable, but as a result the accompaniment is often heard but faintly in the background. What is especially striking is the urgency of Elgar’s conducting. He dispatches ‘In Haven’ in a mere 1:39 and his basic tempo for ‘Where Corals Lie’ is also pretty swift though he slows up appropriately for all the slower passages. He’s particularly animated in ‘The Swimmer’ and, to be honest, this feels rushed. However, it’s invaluable to have a recording of Elgar at the helm in this score.
The two concertos feature in heavily cut versions. In each case Elgar himself did the pruning - willingly, it seems - so that the music could fit onto four 78 sides. In the Cello Concerto the second movement is scarcely cut while the serene Adagio emerges completely unscathed. Beatrice Harrison is good, especially in the slow movement, and Elgar chose her as his soloist again nine years later, in 1928, when he recorded the complete score electrically. The Violin Concerto is much more severely hacked about; a mere 16 minutes of music survive in this 1916 account. Of special interest here is the cadenza. To accommodate the engineering, Elgar re-wrote the cadenza, giving the famous ‘thrumming’ to a harp instead of the strings. This version of the cadenza was included on Tasmin Little’s 2010 recording - see review. In the present abridged version the focus of the recording is firmly on the soloist, Marie Hall - as is also the case in the Cello Concerto. She plays well, especially in the slow movement, but it does seem decidedly odd to hear the cadenza before the truncated finale - it almost turns the concerto into a short, four-movement work. Though this 1916 version is not without interest the 1932 Menuhin recording (review) remains hors concours if you want to hear Elgar directing his great concerto.
The 1917 recording of Cockaigne is so brutally truncated that it is little more than a curiosity - Elgar recorded it in full in 1933. In the South, recorded in 1923, is a very different matter, however. Yes, it is cut but not disastrously so - this recording plays for 16:04; Elgar’s complete re-make of 1930 plays for 20:13. What’s most important, however, is that despite the primitive recording the sheer energy and surge of Elgar’s interpretation of his colourful score is plain to hear. Just as interesting is his handling of the Canto popolare section. There are no cuts in this passage and it’s a delight. The viola solo is lovely and is most delicately accompanied and, indeed, Elgar’s way with this whole episode (8:27-11:57) is completely winning.
There’s much charm on display in some of the lighter works. Carissima may be a slight piece but it’s delightful. Here the bass line, perhaps reinforced by a tuba, sounds tubby but the recording is worth hearing for the way in which Elgar phrases the lovely violin melody. This recording has the distinction that it’s the very first one that Elgar made. Andrew Neill tells us that after the stage play The Starlight Express was a failure Elgar was keen to rescue some of his incidental music from the risk of oblivion by means of a recording. HMV obliged by recording him in eight numbers in 1916. Charles Mott was the baritone - he’d sung in the theatrical production too - and if his over-expressive delivery of ‘To the Children’ is a bit too much to take nowadays his voice falls much more pleasingly on the ear in ‘Curfew Song’, where his expression is appropriate and where he spins a good line. Agnes Nicholls is the soprano. She battles with the accompaniment and, frankly, sounds shrill in ‘The Laugher’s Song’ but she’s much better suited to the music of ‘Tears and Laughter - Sunrise Song’ and her voice is better recorded too. Those who have recently come to this magical score through the fine recording by Sir Andrew Davis (review) will be particularly intrigued to experience the composer in some of the numbers. Elgar is also heard in all but three of the numbers from his two Wand of Youth Suites. He fairly rattles through some of the items, such as the ‘Overture’ in the Suite No. 1, but he gets the orchestra to phrase the ‘Serenade’ from the same suite with charm and these recordings are well worth hearing. He re-recorded the suites, in full, in 1928.
I can’t raise much enthusiasm for the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches. Both are heavily cut; in each case the priority seems to have been to play the big tune three times. March No. 1 suffers particularly grievously in this respect but matters are made worse by the fact that Elgar takes the whole thing so slowly; it’s quite leaden and, to be honest, pompous. No, pass this by and listen to his 1926 re-make instead - where No. 4 is also given complete. The ‘Enigma’ Variations fare much better. This was the product of three widely-spaced sessions in 1920/21. The timings of the individual sections are not greatly dissimilar to those in Elgar’s electrical re-make of 1926, with the regrettable exception of ‘Nimrod’ from which about a minute of music was cut in 1920/1. The sound in some of the variations calls for tolerance. ‘H.D.S-P.’ sounds thin and scratchy while ‘G.R.S.’, which is taken at a frenetic speed, sounds shrill. However, despite the sonic limitations, sufficient emerges to give us a fine sense of the spirit of Elgar’s way with his first acknowledged masterpiece. Note that in ‘Nimrod’ he keeps the music moving forward well and invests it with the right degree of nobility. The finale, a self-portrait, is given with lots of energy though, be warned, some of the brass playing near the end sounds over-enthusiastic - at least as recorded - and therefore ugly.
In 1924/5 Elgar made his last acoustic recording, and what a recording it was! He conducted an orchestra numbering fifty players - a large band for acoustic conditions - in his Second Symphony. This symphony was also to be one of his first electrical recordings, in 1927, and I find it interesting that he should record - and be allowed to record - this work, which had not been overwhelmingly received when first performed, in preference to the First Symphony, which had attained such a runaway success when Richter unveiled it in 1908; the First had to wait until 1930 for a recording. Elgar’s acoustic recording presents the Second Symphony uncut and what stands out more than anything else is the sheer energy in this performance. Indeed, at times in the first movement Elgar whips up some of the faster music in the way that a jockey would encourage a thoroughbred in Elgar’s beloved sport of racing. That’s not to say for a moment that the composer skates over the more reflective passages of this wonderful score; he doesn’t and it’s especially moving to hear his noble, unaffected reading of the second movement. He brings great vitality to the Rondo while the finale is magisterial. Here, once again, there’s lots of energy in the first half of the movement and then he finds all the poetry in the gorgeous Brahmsian coda - not for nothing was the Brahms Third Symphony a favourite work of Elgar’s. What a pity that the original recording cuts off so brutally as soon as the last note has been played. Despite the constraints of acoustic recording techniques - and the need to reduce Elgar’s opulent scoring to a mere fifty players - all the main strands of the music are there to hear and it’s amazing how much detail comes through. As with so many other performances in this set the spirit of Elgar’s conducting triumphs over the limitations of early recording techniques.
All collectors who want to hear Elgar conducting his own music will obviously - and rightly - gravitate firstly to his electrical recordings. However, these earlier, acoustic forays have their own rewards and interest. Elgar deserves acknowledgement as a recording pioneer, one of the first great composers to record significant amounts of his own music. We should doff our hats to him for having the vision to embrace the new technology so readily and to see its value as a way of disseminating his music.
It seems to me that Lani Spahr has done a splendid job with these transfers, breathing new life into recordings, the oldest of which is now 99 years old. One takes it as read that the sound is limited but the spirit and character of the music comes across loud and clear. Impressively documented and presented this set is a major document, invaluable as part of our appreciation of one of England’s greatest composers.
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]
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
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
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
A major document, invaluable as part of our appreciation of one of England’s greatest composers.
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