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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1897/99) [22.33]
Polonia, Op. 76 (1915) [13.16]
Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1-5, Op. 39 (1901/30) [28.24]
Alice Coote (mezzo)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 5-7 August 2014, Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester (Op. 37); 4-5 February 2012 (Op. 39), 10 September 2013 (Op. 76), BBC Studios, BBC MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7536 [64.58]

The Hallé is strongly associated with Elgar’s music, possibly more than any other composer, and helped establish his reputation. Elgar conducted the Hallé on a number of occasions and notably in 1908 the orchestra under Hans Richter was entrusted with the première of Elgar’s First Symphony in Manchester. The Hallé remains a great Elgarian orchestra today. On 5 May 2012 I reported on the Hallé's Bridgewater Hall performance of The Apostles for Seen and Heard International. A group of friends and I travelled to the Bridgewater and witnessed a memorable concert (review). The award-winning live recording of that evening can be found on the Hallé label (review). With the present new release the Hallé again asserts its long recording tradition in the music of Elgar.

Composed whilst living at Birchwood Lodge, Great Storridge, Herefordshire, Sea Pictures comprises five songs for contralto and orchestra. The settings are of words by different poets. Four of the songs were written in 1899 with In Haven (Capri), to words by Alice Elgar, a reworking of a song written a couple of years earlier. Originally for soprano voice Elgar transposed the works for contralto and orchestra largely at the behest of Clara Butt who introduced the cycle at the Norwich Festival. An assured soloist mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote is eminently suited to Elgar’s Sea Pictures and provides a performance to savour. Her creamy voice, shaping of phrase and tonal colouring are attributes that together with her deep understanding of the text combine to remarkable effect. Especially enjoyable is Coote’s atmospheric and tender rendition of Sea Slumber Song. In Haven (Capri), although taken rather slowly, is quite beautifully sung. Proving the most challenging, the fifth song The Swimmer find Coote requiring a more even line. The Hallé under Sir Mark Elder play with a firm focus, freshness and real sensitivity. This is a satisfying interpretation from a singer who is on splendid form. Nevertheless for selfless engagement it is still hard to beat Dame Janet Baker’s classic 1965 Kingsway Hall account with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli on EMI Classics.

As part of his contribution to the war effort Elgar’s symphonic prelude Polonia, Op. 76 was composed in 1915 in response to a request from Polish conductor Emil Młynarski. Elgar’s intention was to employ Polish national music in the manner he had used in Carillon to assist Belgian charities following the German invasion. Lasting over thirteen minutes Polonia is a substantial score that I have yet to come across in the concert hall. Despite the finest possible advocacy here the music left me cold.

In 1897 Elgar caught the mood of the nation with his Imperial March for full orchestra. Written to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Elgar clearly relished the regularity of the march rhythm. The 5 Pomp and Circumstance Marches were written between 1901 and 1930, and in the accompanying notes Michael Kennedy writes “Pomp and Circumstance was an unprecedented effort to give the ceremonial military march symphonic status.” Containing the tune that we have come to know as Land of Hope and Glory the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 has demonstrated enduring popularity. This has been buoyed up by its inclusion each year at the Last Night of the Proms. I did wonder if the version of the unfinished March No. 6 with the sketches elaborated by Anthony Payne would be included on this release but it isn’t. With committed vitality the Hallé under Sir Mark manage to capture Elgar's regal swagger in excellent performances that can stand alongside the accounts by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra from the 1950s on EMI.

In recent years I have seen references to the Sea Pictures coming across as dated but on this release it is the song-cycle sung by Alice Coote that sounds fresh and new with the Pomp and Circumstance Marches having a somewhat anachronistic quality. Recording at two locations - Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester and BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford - the engineering team has provided a consistent sound that is both being clear and well balanced. The essay by the late Michael Kennedy is as interesting and informative as one had come to expect from this renowned Elgar biographer. Impressively played by the Hallé this is an attractive Elgar release that should have a wide-ranging appeal.

Michael Cookson



 

 




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