This disc proves to be something of a mixed bag. In its favour is the magnificent instrument that is the 'Father' Willis organ in Salisbury Cathedral. This has been caught in all its considerable glory by the Regent technical team. The performer, John Challenger, knows the organ and the cathedral well; he has been the Assistant Director of Music there since 2012. Challenger also contributes the liner in which he makes some very valid points. Elgar had a particular empathy for the organ and indeed organists. Ivor Atkins at Worcester, G.R. Sinclair (immortalised in the Enigma Variations) at Hereford and Herbert Brewer at Gloucester were close friends. Through the institution of the Three Choirs Festival they provided a regular platform on which Elgar's works could receive high quality performances. Challenger's other point is regarding the 'authenticity' of the Salisbury organ sound. Although it has been subject to restoration and maintenance over the years the essential sound of the instrument is much the same as it would have been when it was built in 1877. So in much the same way that it seems right and proper for Vierne and Widor to be heard on one of the great Cavaillé-Coll instruments so hearing Elgar - albeit in arrangement - on an authentic British organ is a rewarding experience.
Challenger further shows his commitment to this cause by furnishing two of the arrangements - all the others are by contemporaries of Elgar. They both sound wholly in accord with the older arrangements. So why the 'mixed-bag' comment. I have often said that for me the function of an arrangement is to throw new light on familiar things - not better or worse ... simply different. Also, I feel it is necessary for the performer to be an impressive interpreter of the chosen composer's works regardless of the instrument on which they are performed. This was true of recent discs I reviewed of Wagner on piano
and Rachmaninov on organ
. Unfortunately, I do not get much if any sense of Challenger being wholly in tune with the full range of Elgarian expression. The music as presented here broadly falls into two types; the meditative and the grandly rhetorical. Framing the programme are the Preludes to The Kingdom
and The Dream of Gerontius
- both of which contain elements of both styles. Overall, the more bombastic the work the better it comes off. So the three large-scale orchestral marches have a direct simplicity and power that works to the music's benefit. Certainly Challenger has all the requisite technical tools at his disposal too.
Yet it is precisely when the music is relatively 'simple' that the interpretations are least successful. The little Une Idylle
Op.4 is one of the less well-known Elgar miniatures but one that displays his genius for simple lyrical melody expressed with great skill. It does need the tempo to ebb and flow - the elusive Elgarian rubato - and Challenger is disappointingly 'straight'. Likewise the jewel-like Larghetto
from the String Serenade
- which is played with near complete po-faced solemnity. This approach might well be apt as an interlude in a church service but fatally undermines the passion so close to the surface of the notes. Another limitation struck me listening to this too - aside from registration to allow musical lines to lead independent lives, an organist cannot give inner parts different dynamic levels. Too often here the entire musical texture is subsumed into a single dynamic - the inner moving viola lines in the Larghetto
for example go for nothing. Lastly, and most distractingly the swell box of the Salisbury organ seems to be a rather unsubtle control. Whether or not Challenger is over-managing the dynamics I am not sure but rather than having a linear sense of growth and decay the dynamics jump up or down. There is a distinct feel of the dynamics being applied from the outside in - loud here/soft there - rather than being a direct development from and consequence of the music itself. Two prime examples are the very beginning of the Imperial March
and the "Jesu pray for me" section of the Gerontius
Prelude. The great emotional surges in the orchestral texture of the latter here just become lumpy.
Where there is a cumulative and gradual build in the texture and weight of organ sonority - such as the transcription of For the Fallen
the Salisbury organ shows off the power and beauty of its sound and Challenger's pacing of the music is good. Even here an organ simply cannot recreate those tenuto
'leans' onto a note that are such a part of Elgar's string writing. Neither can an organ respond quickly enough for the febrile accents which characterise much of Elgar's music. Too often throughout this disc I have the sense of the emotionalism so central to Elgar being rather smoothed away and made decorous.
The value of this disc is that it focuses on arrangements and as such forms a unique collection. Especially since these arrangements - with the exclusion of Challenger and Tom Winpenny - date from Elgar's lifetime so there is a sense that these are very much authentically 'of the time'. Unfortunately, Challenger's liner makes no reference to the arrangements or arrangers - some more context would have been interesting. Most Elgar organ recitals include the original works; the Organ Sonata and Vesper Voluntaries fleshed out with arrangements including Ivor Atkins' nominal Second Organ Sonata which is a transcription of The Severn Suite
. Indeed Regent have just such a disc in their catalogue performed on this same organ by Thomas Trotter
which I have not heard.
Apart from Challenger's liner, the booklet contains a brief history of the Salisbury organ together with its full specification and the usual performer biography. All in all, brief but adequate. Interesting repertoire on a generously filled disc, recorded in fine sound but rather literally performed.