With the seasons turning and Remembrance Sunday approaching in the centenary year of the start of World War I it seems especially appropriate to consider these two fine albums which have at their heart acts of commemoration. The earlier disc, titled "The Longed-For Light" after a letter Elgar wrote in 1914, was released some two years ago, but in every sense this new disc is its spiritual companion.
In essence none of the music here is receiving a premiere recording - but the programming of the contents is unique and makes for a powerful listening experience. With the exception of three major scores, "The Longed-For Light" contains all of Elgar's scores written in response to World War I. The exceptions are The Spirit of England / With Proud Thanksgiving
which appear on the new disc and Fringes of the Fleet
which Somm have previously released on a disc from the late-lamented Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra under Tom Higgins (review
). This leaves only The Starlight Express
- as escapist a score as Elgar ever wrote - unaccounted for in Somm's catalogue.
Elgar's great knack - either intuitively or on demand was to hit the public mood. This applies to his large-scale 'serious' music as much as the salon miniatures and certainly to these public works which are in effect propaganda. Although the rhetoric of some of the verse may jar a century or so later, the sincerity and ardour is not in doubt. I find it particularly interesting to note how in both the three narrated works and Spirit of England
it is possible to chart the sea-change in the nation's response to War from the patriotic fervour which greeted Carillon
to the war-weary muted reaction of Le Drapeau Belge
. A major contribution to the success of these three Cammaerts settings is the narration by Simon Callow. He brings an authentic flashing-eyed passion to the text that quite sweeps away any inhibition or concern. Listen to how he snarls the line "... and of their triumphant entry, at last, in Berlin!" In this he is helped greatly by the committed support of the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor John Wilson. The resonant acoustic of the Watford Colosseum supports Elgar's heraldic writing perfectly and the whole disc is superbly engineered by Paul Waton and producer Neil Varley.
Throughout the programme Wilson proves himself to be a very successful and sensitive Elgarian. In the bombastic sections he is willing to give the orchestra their head but more impressively the poetic Sospiri
and delightful miniatures Carissima
receive touchingly beautiful performances. Wilson's skill is to make them tender and poetic not cloyingly sentimental. As mentioned, although rare, none of these works are previously unrecorded and the greatest compliment that can be paid these performances is that they are fully the equal of those from Elgarians of the stature of Boult
and Lawrence Collingwood
. Add to that rarities such as the ballet The Sanguine Fan
in only the third recording I know (Boult
) and this proves to be a disc or considerable musical stature. Even Polonia
, which is about as near to being a "Fantasy on National Airs" as Elgar ever wrote, emerges as a work of greater worth and craft than I had previously given it credit for. The three Cammaerts poems receive their finest recordings. They all appeared on an old (1995) Pearl recording which was passionately conducted by Barry Collett (Pearl SHECD9602) . The spoken parts were taken by Richard Pascoe who gives effective if less rhetorical performances than Simon Callow and the important soprano part in Une Voix dans le Désert
movingly sung by Teresa Cahill. Collett is let down by enthusiastic but flawed orchestral playing from the Rutland Sinfonia who are no match in any department for the BBC Concert Orchestra. This work also appeared as part of Douglas Bostock
's Elgar disc in his survey of British Symphonic music for ClassicO
conducting the Munich Symphony Orchestra. At the time of its release this ClassicO disc contained several premiere recordings, all of which have now been superseded by more recent superior performances.
Somm's presentation is top-notch too, from the powerfully evocative painting used on the booklet cover, to the extensive informative liner essay (in English and French) by Andrew Neill together with full texts. Particularly useful is the identification with timing indications of the various melodic sources in Polonia
. As previously mentioned this helps greatly to raise one's appreciation of Elgar's skilled treatment of this patchwork of themes. All in all this disc must count as one of the finest collections of Elgar's less famed works in recent times.
Many of the production qualities from the earlier disc are carried forward to the new one. Andrew Neill is again enlightening and informative - here the detailed synopsis of the Arthur
score helps the listener place the often fragmentary cues into the through narrative. Admirers of the composer and completists will require the disc for its inclusion in a premiere recording of the complete incidental music to Arthur
in its original theatre orchestra scoring. For others, although fine, this is less of a compulsory purchase simply because the competing versions are very good too.
The through-thread of this second disc is Laurence Binyon. Together with Rupert Brooke's The Soldier¸
Binyon provided the iconic Remembrance poetry of World War I or indeed any war. This is his set of poems The Winnowing Fan
which included For the Fallen
which in turn has the lines "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old, ... At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them." This poem Elgar set as the third and final movement of his Spirit of England
. By some distance this is the largest in both scale and intent of his War-inspired works. My colleague John Quinn has written an article on MusicWeb International
about Elgar's war works in general and this work specifically. I recommend people to read it ... not that I agree with his recording choices.
This new version from John Wilson enters the lists as the fourth in the current catalogue. Each is good in its own right and differently coupled. The greatest strength of this new disc is that it form part of such an interesting and unique programme. Slightly disappointingly the engineering - a different team from the BBC Concert Orchestra/Watford Colosseum disc - although perfectly good does not generate the weight and impact that gives the work so much of its emotional power. Curiously, the Philharmonia sound
as though they are playing with a smaller string strength here than their BBC counterparts although usually this would be the other way around. Did any other composer ever use an organ in an orchestral context so often and so tellingly? In this new recording one is aware of it but little more. Hickox's instrument sounds sensational and with soloist Felicity Lott in damely imperious form I enjoy this version greatly. Sitting behind Hickox (EMI
) in my preferred list is the newest version before now from David Lloyd-Jones (Dutton
). As is often the case with Lloyd-Jones I find him good at keeping things moving but not necessarily so good at wringing out all possible emotion. His unique offering is the use of a tenor instead of soprano in the central movement - to my ear interesting but not a necessity. Which leaves Gibson with the SNO recorded in Paisley Abbey (Chandos CHAN 8430). The two factors which rule this out for John Quinn are precisely those that make it my favoured version. Using the rolling acoustic of the Abbey Gibson produces a performance much slower and epic in conception. Normally I prefer versions of any piece that follow the score in terms of tempi and direction. Here, I really like the way Gibson creates a reading appropriate for that time and place. His choir and orchestra respond with passionately full-throated singing and playing crowned by gloriously dramatic singing from Teresa Cahill - her initial sweeping upward octave leap convincing me completely and probably stylistically wholly authentic. Add an organ part that rumbles and roars and to my ear this is Gibson's finest Elgar recording. Next to it John Wilson sounds just a trifle plain with his organ registering least of any of the four versions. His soloist - in all three movements - is Judith Howarth - she sings with great drama and attack although I find the way her vibrato spreads in alt less attractive than some other singers in the role. The LSO chorus are well prepared but a little too mannered in some of their phrasing. I must stress, however, that this is a matter of degree and personal taste. The music shines through as majestically as ever.
I am always struck by the 'journey' that this works makes in just half an hour. The opening with its leaping octave — giving the music a certainty and confidence that Elgar rarely exploited; his signature interval of the 7th implying a different emotion altogether — is full of near-naive optimism. This is after all The Fourth of August
and young British men flocked to enlist to throw back the German hordes. With the benefit of hindsight, Binyon's verse seems almost absurdly positive yet undoubtedly it does capture the mood of the time: "Now in thy splendour go before us, Spirit of England ardent-eyed". In that line is Elgar's genius encapsulated - his great skill was to be able to reflect the public mood, to capture the instant and enshrine it in music. So as the work progresses the certainties of that opening fall away and by the final section, For the Fallen,
the earlier confidence - indeed bombast - has been replaced by sorrow and mourning. This closing movement lasts for nearly the same length as both other two put together. Yes, this still reflects a sense of heroic loss that a more modern age may feel is not the real legacy of War but after all this was a public statement of a century ago by the Nation's composer-laureate. Elgar's handling of the "we will remember them" text is deeply moving and superbly judged with the air of dignity and duty resonating powerfully in any age.
No surprise that Elgar should return to this closing movement when he was asked to for music as part of the ceremony to unveil the Cenotaph in London's Whitehall in 1920. Circumstances dictated a major revision of the work - no soloist, an abbreviated text and an original wind-band accompaniment. Although this revision, now known as With Proud Thanksgiving
, was not required for that ceremony it was first used, in Elgar's own orchestral version as here, in 1921 at a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall. The revision is major and well worth hearing as an appendix to the original work. Andrew Neill, in his consistently illuminating liner, is quite right to say that it is less subtle or profound but as an occasional work is well worth hearing. Competition for this recording is considerably less. I only know one other version - from Douglas Bostock again - this time with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Again, I find that a broader tempo - Bostock takes 7:30 to Wilson's 7:06 - subtly underlines the sense of memorial. The ClassicO recording
for Bostock edges out Somm as well with the Liverpool chorus given a more blended sound and better perspective relative to the orchestra.
At first glance the inclusion of Carillon
would seem an unnecessary duplication with the earlier disc. Until one realises - which I had not until this point - that Laurence Binyon provided an alternative text in 1942 some eight years after the composer's death. There is an interesting little psychological trick here - the orchestral accompaniment is exactly the same in both versions - I lined them up on a music editing programme on my computer and they are perfectly synchronous. Clearly, Simon Callow's declamation has simply - and skilfully - been overlaid onto a separately recorded and edited orchestral track. Fascinatingly, the very different tenor of the texts makes the orchestral part sound
different as well. Where Cammaerts seeks vengeance and restitution, Binyon anticipates the coming of peace when "the darkness be turned away". As before, Simon Callow finds a way of 'pitching' the text that is appropriate and moving. Although not a version sanctioned by Elgar - would he have written a very different orchestral part from the outset I wonder? - it is a fascinating addition to the discography.
The closing work is in fact the most substantial as well as having the status of a premiere recording. By 1923 Elgar was in the depths of the compositional block caused by his wife's death in 1920. The incidental music he was able to write for Binyon's play - which ran for just 10 performances in March 1923 - is fragmentary but what is remarkable is Elgar's skill at finding motifs that are wholly characteristic, dramatically effective and memorable when often less than a minute in length and scored for a small orchestra. The significance of the work is that it was Elgar's first original
music composed after the death of his wife and the instrumentation - excluding specifically chamber works - is the smallest Elgar wrote for in his maturity. The twenty-five cues given here run to a total of just over thirty-four minutes with more than half less than one minute in length. Again Andrew Neill hits the descriptive nail on the head when he says "In Arthur
Elgar rekindled the 'heroic melancholy' of Grania and Diarmid
from 1901." It also helps greatly that the liner includes a detailed synopsis as well as individual track indications showing exactly how the music was woven into the text. Conductor Ben Palmer is credited with editing the Arthur
music although apparently the versions from the Complete Elgar Edition were used. Quite how these two work together I am not clear not having seen the Elgar Edition score. I suspect it means the unifying of any ambiguities in phrasing and dynamics and possibly minor adjustments allowing a sequence of cues to run together. Certainly one does not have the sense of start-stop that 25 cues in half an hour might imply. There is
a considerable amount of thematic repetition as one would expect of music written to underline scenes and characters.
The use of Elgar's original scoring for fifteen instruments is fascinating: three violins, viola, cello, bass, flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, two trumpets/cornets, trombone, piano, harp and percussion. A surviving letter from Elgar implies that initially the Old Vic proposed an even smaller instrumental group - Elgar had to push for the cello, trombone, second cornet and harp. With the exception of the harp this is exactly the "SO" (small orchestra) line-up which was completely standard in light music ensembles right up to the 1960s. The harp's inclusion is curious in that it adds some 'bardic' colour — and Scene IV calls for "harpists in attendance" — but I am surprised Elgar did not opt for the extra variation a horn or bassoon might have given him. The performance is thoroughly idiomatic - the lightness of the scoring is very evocative. Palmer has a very good feel for the score and the recording, while close, captures the various lines well. My only query is the rather wan and bleached tone adopted by the violins for some extended sections. Not having seen a score I cannot be certain if there are senza vibrato
or sul ponticello
(on the bridge) indications. While these might work perfectly in a theatrical context it is hard not to find the effect rather over-used on disc.
As previously mentioned, dedicated Elgarians will want this disc for this performance. Others curious to hear this little known score - although sections are now familiar from their inclusion in Anthony Payne's realisation of the Symphony No.3 sketches
- might well be better served by hearing the only other major recording of the score. This is the 1973 recording on Chandos (CHAN6582 or CHAN8428) by George Hurst and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. If not complete, at twenty four minutes Hurst includes all the major sections of the score and the Sinfonietta provide an inauthentically more sumptuous sound. Hurst was a fine Elgarian as embodied in his (too few) recordings on Naxos (review
) and Chandos
and he captures exactly the heroic melancholy previously mentioned. It would be quite wrong to attempt such a broad approach with a small group - the result would sound inevitably underpowered. Palmer finds an effective mid-point and in fact the ear adjusts very quickly to the limited tonal palette. Some of the 'stage' effects - distant trumpet-calls and the like - are effectively achieved in their brevity. I doubt this is a score that even ardent supporters of the composer return to that often but it is valuable to have a complete original version in the catalogue at last.
Somm's presentation is again excellent. The booklet is in English only this time but with extended commentaries on the works, full texts and the all-important plot analysis of Arthur
. In part the disc has been sponsored by a legacy from John Harvey Boys and the inside front cover of the liner has a touching 'In Memoriam' for him, two of his uncles and a cousin. There are two minor blips. One is a mis-listing of all the tracks from 14 to 23 as being part of Scene IV - in the main body of the liner the Scenes to which the music was written is correctly applied. The other is that the timing of Carillon
is given as the same as on the earlier disc - in fact Binyon's more contemplative setting adds about 14 seconds to its running time.
As a pair of well-filled discs these are of great musical merit and considerable emotional impact - and not just at times of memorial and remembrance. Judged separately, I would consider the earlier disc a complete success while the latter is very good, I prefer alternative versions where they exist - just - in every instance.
Previous reviewsThe Longed for Light
Ian Lace The Binyon Settings