Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Serenade for Strings in E minor Op.20 (1892) [12:27]
La Capricieuse Op.17 (1891) [3:47]
Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918-19) [37:07]
Elegy Op.58 (1909) [4:18]
The Spanish Lady - Suite ed. Percy Young (1934/1956) [11:02]
Xue Wei (violin), Pamela Nicholson (piano) (La Capriceuse)
The Schubert Ensemble (Quintet)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner  (Serenade)
 Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland (Elegy & Spanish Lady)
rec. Abbey Road, 1989 (Serenade), Henry Wood Hall, 1989 (La Capricieuse), Champs Hill, 2001 (Quintet), Sony Music Studios, 2001 (Elegy and Spanish Lady)
ALTO ALC1321 [70:00]

This disc is a straight reissue of the programme issued on ASV around 2002, which in turn was a bringing together of various recordings from various times. The quality of the individual performances remains high, but I do quite struggle to see the intended audience for such a mixed bag of Elgar from early to late, and novelty miniature to a profound large-scale masterpiece.

Taken individually, each performance is good at least and often more than that. Together with the adjacent Opus 19 Froissart, the Op.20 Serenade for Strings is the first extended work, in which glimpses of the mature great composer unmistakably appear. It shows Elgar's remarkable ability to write in a style that is both light, but also emotionally moving and sincere. The performance here from Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is as assured and in tune with the idiom as one would expect of such experienced musicians. Marriner picks ideally fluent tempi, allowing the music to breathe and flow, giving it emotional weight where required, without committing the cardinal sin of Elgar interpretation of anticipating and thereby overblowing climaxes. Instead he finds exactly the right degree of held and poised intensity. Timings are very close to the fine Decca/Argo recording Marriner made some years earlier, but it could be argued that he finds a degree of extra tender fragility in the central Larghetto, even if the recording is not quite as rich as the classic Decca analogue.

Xue-Wei has all the technical resources for La Capricieuse, which just 3 opus numbers earlier than the Serenade, comes firmly from the period of Elgar trying to supply music for the salon. I am not completely convinced that Xue-Wei has the style quite right. For all the skill in the flying spiccato, his phrasing is rather repetitious and heavy-handed - if anything the music is not capricious enough.

The journey Elgar made in the quarter century or so from La Capricieuse is embodied in the late great Piano Quintet, which lies at the centre of this programme. This receives an excellent, often pensive and thoughtful performance from the Schubert Ensemble. That this is a 'big' work, straining at the nominal limitations of its chamber form, has recently been evidenced by the orchestral transcription by Donald Fraser. Interesting though that might be - I have not heard the disc - for me the greatness of the quintet lies in the way that Elgar, the master-orchestrator, achieves the sense of scale he does with 'just' five instruments. As with any great piece there are multiple valid approaches. I very much like the Maggini Quartet on Naxos with Peter Donohoe, who produce a performance of high drama, great skill and considerable power. The first version I knew and still a favourite is the version on EMI/Warner from the Allegri Quartet with John Ogden. But the Schubert Ensemble are their equals musically and technically and they choose to emphasise the chamber-music qualities of the work. Not that climaxes are underplayed or underpowered, but the heart of the piece and performance lies in the central Adagio, which gets a superbly dignified and gently poised interpretation. Phrases are perfectly sustained and directed - alongside the adjacently numbered Cello Concerto hard not to hear this as some kind of valedictory farewell. The recording here is good at integrating all the instruments together into pleasingly natural acoustics, which matches the style of the interpretation.

The Op.58 Elegy comes from the high-noon of Elgar's career sitting between the two symphonies and the violin concerto. Given the concentrated power and intensity of this short four-minute work, it is curious that it remains the least known of Elgar's works for string orchestra. The performance by Gavin Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia is perfectly good, but does not manage to plumb the emotional depths of Barbirolli or Del Mar (who takes nearly a three-quarters of a minute longer). The latter also benefits from the larger string section, deployed by the LPO. Interestingly Boult is far swifter at around 3:30 - call me indulgent, but I do find the weightier approach more probing and rewarding. Quite how the creative fires had dimmed is shown in the slight suite for strings created by Percy Young from Elgar's abortive opera The Spanish Lady. Anthony Payne's reconstruction of the 3rd Symphony shows that Elgar's powers were still considerable, but the opera sketches operate at a lower level of inspiration. Young's five movement suite is attractive in an Edward German or Parry Baroque suite kind of way, but lacks any of the emotional heft that all the other Elgar string works contain. Programming-wise, putting this slight but attractive work last is something of an anti-climax after the Serenade, Quintet and even Elegy. It remains a relative rarity in the Elgar recorded catalogue and is again perfectly well played here, without any aspect of the performance leading the listener to believe it is a greater piece than previously supposed. Again, decently recorded.

The variously dated and sourced recordings are well engineered, the liner notes are brief but adequate and the price-point is attractive. So a fine performance of an undoubted Elgar masterpiece, the Piano Quintet, is the main attraction here, but I would encourage curious listeners to hear that work as part of the triptych of late chamber works rather than in isolation as here. Given the varied nature of the content, a disc that is likely to be dipped into rather than enjoyed in a single sitting.

Nick Barnard

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