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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Binyon Settings
The Spirit of England, Op. 80 (1915-16) [27:21]
With Proud Thanksgiving (1915, 1920) [7:06]
Carillon, Op. 75* (1914, 1942) [8:27]
Arthur – A Tragedy: the complete incidental music** (1923) [34:41]
Simon Callow (speaker)*
Judith Howarth (soprano)
London Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/John Wilson
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Wilson*
Orchestra of St. Paul's/Ben Palmer**
rec. 23-24 April 2014, Henry Wood Hall, London; *13 February 2012, Watford Colosseum; **24 March 2014, St. Mary’s Church, Walthamstow. DDD
Texts included
SOMM SOMMCD 255 [78:21]

It was as recently as August that I contributed to MusicWeb International an article about Elgar’s The Spirit of England, a score that I consider to be the most seriously under-regarded among his major works. In that piece I compared the three available recordings of the work, little knowing that a new version was on the way from Somm. This new release is to be welcomed, therefore, as a significant addition to the fairly small discography of The Spirit of England but it is welcome on several other counts as well. It’s an important release because it usefully brings together all of Elgar’s collaborations with the poet, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), including one posthumous collaboration. The disc also includes at least one and possibly two recorded premières. The work that I am certain is appearing on disc for the first time is the complete incidental music that Elgar wrote in 1923 for Binyon’s 1919 verse play, Arthur. Somm do not claim Carillon as a première recording but I’m not sure that the work has previously appeared on disc with Binyon’s 1942 words.

This recording of Carillon is an interesting supplement to Somm’s earlier disc of Elgar’s wartime music, The Longed for Light (review) and its 1995 predecessor on Pearl SHECD9602 from Barry Collett and the Rutland Sinfonia. That valuable Somm collection included the original 1914 version of Carillon with Simon Callow reciting the English translation of the French poem by the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts (1878-1953). A footnote in the booklet accompanying that disc told me something that I didn’t know: in 1942, with the consent of Cammaerts, Laurence Binyon wrote a new poem to go with Elgar’s music. That’s the version that’s included on this present disc; in fact, the recording was made at the same sessions that produced The Longed for Light. In Elgar’s score most of the recitation is unaccompanied – only a few lines are lightly accompanied by the orchestra. That had the very practical benefit that Cammaerts’ poem could be recited in either the original French or in the English translation made by the poet’s wife. Happily, this also means that Binyon’s words can be substituted with ease. I think the 1942 text fits pretty well. Cammaerts lamented in his poem the destruction of many Belgian bell towers as a result of the German invasion and he envisioned a time when the bells would once again peal out in victory. It’s very much a text of its time and we should understand it as the outpouring of a patriot who has seen his native land pillaged by invaders. Binyon’s poem, though also written in wartime, is more reflective and restrained in tone, though no less deeply felt – by comparing the two texts we can see how times and tastes had changed in just less than three decades. Binyon’s verses require a less histrionic style from the speaker and Simon Callow is sensitive to the contrast with Cammaerts' sentiments: only in the last three lines does he “let rip”. This is an important supplement to the earlier disc and Somm are to be congratulated on including it.

The Spirit of England is an extremely fine piece indeed. All three movements in this work are very thoughtful: Binyon’s verses and the unfolding tragedy at the Front inspired Elgar to produce some truly eloquent music. This new performance from John Wilson is very good in many respects. However, I do have one reservation, namely the singing of Judith Howarth. She has all the histrionic capabilities that many passages in the score require but in my view she overdoes the expression at times. In ‘To Women’ she is most expressive but she misses the gentle pathos that is surely an intrinsic element of Elgar’s setting. I can’t escape the feeling that she strives too hard for expression; indeed, at one point in my notes I scribbled down “this is Elgar, not Verdi”. Felicity Lott, who sings for Hickox, is much more successful at conveying the emotion without excess. The David Lloyd-Jones version (review) isn’t entirely comparable since he uses a tenor soloist in this middle movement and there are pluses and minuses to that decision. On balance, I like the use of the male voice here and Andrew Kennedy does well; I prefer his approach, too, to that of Miss Howarth. She displays some similarities with Susan Gritton (for Lloyd-Jones) in the outer movements – both sing with generous tone and strong expression. My favourite soprano on disc remains Felicity Lott, followed by Susan Gritton and Judith Howarth in that order.

Each of the three recordings features excellent orchestral playing and choral singing. I have the impression that on this new version the LSO Chorus has been placed slightly closer to the microphones than is the case on the Hickox and Lloyd-Jones recordings. By comparison with them the sound of the LSO Chorus for Wilson seems just a tiny bit cramped – that’s no reflection on the singers. On the other hand, the Somm recording conveys the orchestra perhaps even more excitingly than either rival. One passage that especially caught my ear is the section in ‘To Women’ where the choir sings ‘Swift, swifter, than those hawks of war’. On the new recording the buzzing, trilling woodwind register more insistently and insidiously than I can recall hearing before; it’s tremendous.

John Wilson conducts with evident belief in the score. There are a few points at which I prefer either Lloyd-Jones or Hickox but anyone buying this recording is going to find that Wilson leads a convinced and convincing performance. I still think that Lloyd-Jones has the edge - and the Hickox would be an extremely strong competitor were it to be re-released separately – but Wilson’s is a considerable performance.

In 1920 Elgar was asked to provide a piece to be played at the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London on 11 November that year, the second anniversary of the Armistice. He arranged the last movement of The Spirit of England, ‘For the Fallen’, for chorus and military band, giving the re-worked piece the title With Proud Thanksgiving. In the end the music was not played at the Cenotaph ceremony and the following year Elgar re-arranged the accompaniment for orchestra and it’s that version that has been recorded here. I’ve previously described the result as less of an arrangement and more an act of butchery. The resultant piece was about half the length of the original with the solo role eliminated entirely. There were also some changes to the music that survived, principally the inclusion of new – and very inferior – music for ‘They shall not grow old …’ There has been a previous modern recording of With Proud Thanksgiving, conducted by Douglas Bostock, but I’m not sure that disc is still available (review). In any event, this new John Wilson version is very good and makes the best possible case for the piece. I might rate it more highly if I didn’t know – and rate so highly – the music in its original and infinitely superior guise.

The final piece on the programme should make the disc self-recommending to Elgar enthusiasts, even if they have recordings of all the other music in their collection. Somm offer us the first recording of the complete incidental music that Elgar wrote in 1923 for Binyon’s 1919 verse play about King Arthur. The play, utilising Elgar’s music, had a short run in London in March 1923 and then both play and music seem to have been largely forgotten. A 23 minute suite compiled from the incidental music was recorded in 1973 by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by George Hurst. That suite was issued on Chandos CHAN6582 and CHAN8428. However the full score was not heard in concert until the 2012 English Music Festival when it was played by the present performers, the Orchestra of St. Paul's and Ben Palmer.

The score consists of 25 numbers. Some of these are very short – 13 of them are less than one minute in length – and the two longest movements each play for just over five minutes. The orchestration is, of necessity, sparing because the music had to be played by a pit band. So, just 14 players are required: two woodwind, three brass, six strings, harp, piano and percussion. Yet, though he was writing on such a small scale Elgar’s music is interesting and it certainly gets a spirited performance here. Incidentally, sharp-eared listeners may pick up one or two familiar fragments: in line with Elgar’s intentions Anthony Payne incorporated some material from Arthur into the second and fourth movements of his realisation of the Third Symphony sketches.

To be frank, I think the Arthur music is likely to be of specialist interest. One problem is that quite a few of the numbers are so short that they seem to be over almost in the blink of an eye – that’s especially true of one sequence (tracks 18 – 22) – and some of these short numbers end abruptly. One wouldn’t notice that if one were watching the play but when the music is heard in isolation the “bittiness” is much more apparent. The thematic material is a little thin and, as so often happens with incidental music, there’s quite a bit of repetition. Nonetheless, the best of the numbers are well worth hearing – Anthony Payne undoubtedly mined the two most memorable ideas for the Third Symphony – and the quiet, dignified elegy at the end, which is built around material that was to find its finest expression in the symphony’s finale, is very moving. It’s good that the music is available for us all to hear and Ben Palmer and his players give it a most skilful and sympathetic performance.

The value of this collection is enhanced still further by the detailed and authoritative notes by Andrew Neill. This is an important release that all Elgarians must hear.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard