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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Light of Life, Op. 29 (Lux Christi) (1896)
Judith Howarth (soprano - The Mother of the Blind Man); Linda Finnie (contralto - Narrator); Arthur Davies (tenor - The Blind Man); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone - Jesus); John Scott (organ)
London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1-3 February 1993, All Saint’s Church, Tooting. DDD
English text included
CHANDOS CHAN 10726 X [62:48]

The Light of Life was Elgar’s first foray into the world of oratorio as a composer though as an orchestral musician - a violinist - he was well versed in the genre, not least through playing in the orchestra for the Three Choirs Festivals. Indeed, he composed The Light of Life for the Worcester Three Choirs Festival of 1896. This early oratorio is much shorter than The Dream of Gerontius and its two successors. Though there are some precursors of the mastery Elgar was soon to attain you will not find in The Light of Life a nascent Gerontius. Within quite a short space of time - a mere four years - Elgar was to take a quantum leap in terms of both compositional accomplishment and, let’s be honest, sheer inspiration; both the Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius are works of genius, which The Light of Life is not. I’ve sung in several performances of Light of Life and based on that experience I heartily second the verdict of Jonathan Woolf, in his review of this present disc, that “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.” Notwithstanding my great love of Elgar’s music, I feel the “less-than-best” passages are in the majority.
That’s not to say, however, thatThe Light of Life is not worth hearing; far from it. It’s not only worth hearing in its own right but also as an essential element in our understanding of Elgar and his development as a composer.
For many years, until this Hickox recording came along, the work was pretty well served on disc by the 1980 EMI reading by Sir Charles Groves. Indeed, the reason I’ve not heard this Hickox recording before is that I was perfectly happy with the Groves performance and I saw no reason to add a second recording of the work to my collection. To the best of my knowledge the Groves recording is no longer available separately though it is included in EMI’s big boxed set, Edward Elgar - The Collector’s Edition (review). Before that it appeared in an EMI Elgar Choral Collection (review) and before that by itself on EMI CDM 7 64732 2 (long deleted but still available from Amazon. Listening now to the Hickox recording in comparison with Groves I think I was mistaken in not acquiring it earlier as it has strengths in comparison to Sir Charles’ recording, albeit there are aspects of the Groves recording that are preferable to this Chandos version.
One clear advantage that Groves enjoys over Hickox is in the performances of his female soloists. On every count I prefer Margaret Marshall and Helen Watts to Hickox’s ladies. In the soprano solo, ‘Be not extreme, O Lord’ I found that if I stopped following in the vocal score then most of Judith Howarth’s words were very difficult to discern. She offers committed full-toned singing but the vibrato that she employs clouds her words. By compensation she’s dramatic and commanding at the climax of the aria, “Lighten, O lighten mine eyes, O Lord” (track 4 2:24). Turn to Margaret Marshall on the Groves disc and you find much greater clarity of diction with no sacrifice of tone. These comments hold true for the whole performance: Miss Marshall is a clear winner.
So, too, is Helen Watts. The alto soloist acts mainly as the narrator. To my ears Linda Finnie’s voice sounds rather heavy and I prefer the somewhat more direct style - and sound - of Helen Watts in narrative passages such as ‘And when He had thus spoken’ (track 7) and ‘He went his way therefore’ (track 9). When we get to the short aria, ‘Thou only hast the words of life’ (track 12) Miss Finnie sounds almost fulsome and her words tend to get swallowed in rich tone and vibrato. By contrast Helen Watts is much more direct in expression and clear of voice - or so it seems to me - yet her timbre falls very pleasingly on the ear.
Honours are much more even when it comes to the men. Indeed, one of the soloists, John Shirley-Quirk, is common to both recordings. Some thirteen years separate the two versions and, as Jonathan Woolf justly observes in his review, he was no longer at his peak by the time he made this second recording - he was sixty-one by that time. That said, I don’t detect a significant decline in his vocal powers as between the two recordings and his voice is ideally suited to the noble music to which Elgar set Christ’s words. That’s particularly true of the final solo, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (track 16). Shirley-Quirk rises to the occasion as nobly as he did for Groves, singing in his native Liverpool, back in 1980.
Groves’ tenor is Robin Leggate, who retired as a principal at the Royal Opera House only in 2011 after forty years with the company. Possibly because he made his career in opera, which isn’t my usual stomping ground, I don’t recall hearing him much during his career but this performance suggests he was under-recorded. Arthur Davies, his rival, has the bigger voice and sings very well and expressively, making a ringing open-throated sound. He does the big, quasi-operatic solo, ‘As a spirit didst Thou pass before mine eyes’ (track 10), very well. However, when I revisited Leggate’s performance of this solo I found that he was far from put in the shade. His voice falls pleasingly on the ear, as it does throughout the work. I don’t think he makes quite as many expressive points in this big solo as Davies does - though he makes all the ones that are in the score. However, he seems to make his breath go a little bit further and I wonder if that’s because he and Groves don’t slow down for expressive points as often as do Davies and Hickox. I enjoyed Davies’ performance of this aria - and, indeed, of the rest of the role - but Leggate is a bit more naturally flowing in these pages and - I come back to a word I’ve used of the two lady soloists - a bit more direct. Both tenors do a fine job.
Groves’ choir and orchestra give him excellent singing and playing but the LSO and their chorus are even finer for Hickox and they come across vividly in a splendid Chandos recording which is much richer and fuller than the EMI sound of 1980, though that recording still sounds pretty well. I wouldn’t care to express a preference between the two conductors. Both of them understand Elgar instinctively and both conduct very well indeed. Interpretatively both versions are extremely successful. Pressed to a choice, perhaps Hickox injects slightly more dramatic fire on occasion.
On balance I’d say that if you already have the Groves recording in your collection then you probably don’t need to upgrade to Hickox unless you want two versions of The Light of Life in your collection - frankly, I don’t think it’s a piece of which anyone other than committed Elgar collectors needs multiple versions. However, if you haven’t got a recording of the work already then, despite the caveats about the female soloists, Hickox’s fine performance is the one to have and that’s a view I’d continue to express if the Groves performance ever becomes available again as a single disc.
John Quinn

See also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Rob Barnett