Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor, op.84 (orch. Donald Fraser) [38:25]
Sea Pictures, op.37 (orch. Donald Fraser) [21:04]
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods Rodolfus Choir, English Chamber Orchestra
rec. October 9 2015, Elgar Hall, Birmingham UK (quintet) 31 July 2013, Abbey Road Studios, London, UK (Sea Pictures) AVIE AV2362 [60:00]
There is quite a long and honourable history of orchestrations of chamber works. It probably started in earnest with Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, and has continued through the efforts of Schönberg, Shostakovich, Bernstein and many others. If we extend that to include keyboard works, Edward Elgar himself made a notably brilliant transcription of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in C minor. That alone would entirely vindicate Donald Fraser’s transformation of these two Elgar works, the A minor Piano Quintet and the song-cycle Sea Pictures, the first of which has been orchestrated, while the second has been set for chorus (instead of solo voice) and orchestra.
The Piano Quintet was written during the final days of World War 1, and Lady Elgar, hearing fragments coming from the composer’s study, felt that the music ‘should be in a War Symphony’. Powerful and characteristic though the piece is, its medium has probably prevented it from becoming one of Elgar’s best known works. Sea Pictures, on the other hand, was composed around the same time as Enigma, so belongs to the stage when Elgar was about to ascend to the peak of his fame.
Donald Fraser is a composer, arranger and conductor, with a wide-ranging output, including a fair amount of film music. He has the added distinction of living in a house in West Sussex that used to belong to Elgar. It’s clear from the very beginning of this disc that he is a skilful and resourceful orchestrator, and he has been quite successful in giving his version of the quintet quite an authentic Elgarian sound. Certain textures here and there sound wide of the mark, and I didn’t feel Fraser had got Elgar’s writing for the harp quite right – much of it lies too low. Fraser makes quite liberal use of percussion to reinforce the big tuttis, and, though there is undoubtedly a precedent for this in Elgar’s symphonies, it is rather overdone, with the balance of the recording making things worse.
But those are relatively unimportant quibbles; most of the quintet adapts to the orchestra remarkably well. The opening is furtive, with a staccato phrase in the strings that persists throughout the movement (did Gerald Finzi have this theme in mind in his Hardy setting ‘The Clock of the Years’ I wonder? So similar.) The most striking idea is in two parts; a haunting descending chord sequence plus a rising phrase that reaches up to Elgar’s favourite major 7th interval.
The central Adagio is truly beautiful; this is the part of the work that, for me, would on its own justify Fraser’s transcription. Not only does it have a majestically open-hearted main theme, so typical of the composer, but it has a number of other memorable ideas (track 2, around 2:45 is a typical example). Fraser’s scoring is sensitive and stylish, though again he’s a little over-enthusiastic with his percussion; too many cymbal clashes, timpani fusillades and tam-tam crashes, which somehow detract from rather than enhance the power of this glorious movement.
The finale reprises the first movement’s principal themes in a brief introduction, before launching the broad main theme, reminiscent in feeling of the main theme of the finale of Symphony no.2. This is perhaps the least distinguished of the three movements; yet it acquires real momentum, and recalls the ’Cello Concerto - very much its contemporary - in the way it raises itself from a moment of despondency for a defiant conclusion.
Most Elgar lovers will, like me, be thrilled with this addition to the Elgar canon. It is every bit as legitimate in that respect as Anthony Payne’s wonderful realisation of the 3rd Symphony; indeed more so, in the sense that here the essential fabric of the work is all Elgar’s very own.
After these splendid tracks, the Sea Pictures is a bit of a come-down. The simple fact is that the adaptation – from solo voice and orchestra to four-part chorus and orchestra – just doesn’t work so well. While the quintet gains a whole new dimension from its orchestral setting, it is hard to identify any real advantage arising from the change from soloist to choir. Add to that the Rodolfus Choir sound rather under-powered (the men’s voices are very hard to distinguish), though in fairness I don’t think the recorded balance does them any favours.
Interesting to hear, but I don’t expect to find myself returning to it much, unlike the Piano Quintet.
The orchestral playing of the joint forces of the English Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra is creditable without being outstanding. The recorded sound is somewhat cramped, so that, though everything is perfectly clear, there is a lack of space for the louder passages, and percussion is too dominant.
This, however, is a momentous issue for lovers of English music, and Elgar in particular, and thanks and congratulations are owed to all participants.
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