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]

I’ve been following Sir Mark Elder’s Elgar series very closely. Only the disc that includes the Enigma Variations and Cockaigne (review) has so far eluded me; I’ve either reviewed or purchased all the other releases and I’ve been seriously impressed by what I’ve heard. Assuming – and I hope I’m wrong – that, if only for economic reasons, works such as King Olaf, Caractacus, Light of Life and Coronation Ode won’t be included in this series then the end of Elder’s Elgar recordings must be in sight. It’s looking unlikely that Anthony Payne’s reconstruction of the Third Symphony will be included – a pity, since I’m sure Elder would make a wonderful job of it. I hope, however, that the wonderful Spirit of England may appear on disc; I am pretty sure Elder performed it in Manchester in 2014.

“It is time someone spoke up for Polonia” says the late Michael Kennedy in his notes. Well, here Sir Mark Elder has certainly done that, and good for him. This piece was written in 1915 as a tribute to the Polish contribution in World War I. Elgar weaves into his score quotations from a number of Polish tunes but, as Mr Kennedy argues, this is much more than a pot-pourri. It should not be forgotten that during World War I Elgar was keen to ‘do his bit’ – for instance he enrolled as a special constable within days of the outbreak of war. Too old for military service, he made his contribution nonetheless, not least through writing music. He wrote several patriotic works and it strikes me that Polonia is a far stronger piece than, for instance, Carillon or Le drapeau Belge. Elgar engages with his musical material most effectively and the orchestration is superb.

One of the key themes in the piece is the Polish tune, Warszawianka; a tune also referenced in Panufnik's Heroic Overture. Ed. This broad melody is so noble in heart that it could have been by Elgar himself. It’s not just the appeal of the melody, first heard at 1:16: listen to the yearning violin counter-melody which really adds something. Even better, when Elgar revisits the tune at 8:41 the writing for the horns is absolutely magnificent. It’s true there are some swaggering passages but these must be understood in the context of the times. There are some delicate episodes too, notably the section between 5:49 and 7:06 during which there’s some admirable solo violin work from Lyn Fletcher. Elder and the Hallé make a very strong case for Polonia. Incidentally, I was delighted to find a non-British conductor performing this score not long ago when I heard a very committed live performance of it by Andris Nelsons and the CBSO (review). The extended centenary commemoration of World War I between 2014 and 2018 has already thrown some additional focus on the music that Elgar wrote during the conflict. As part of that process it would be nice to think that Polonia may be brought in from the cold.
Sir Mark and his team are just as successful in the Pomp and Circumstance marches. In the famous Number 1 the quick sections have brilliance and crisp vitality. When the big tune is first heard Elder unfolds it with quietly assured dignity and then, on its repetition, with unforced grandeur. The last time we hear the tune it’s suitably opulent and the organ adds significant reinforcement to the texture, just as it did in Polonia. The Second march has lots of nervous energy. I hadn’t previously thought of this piece as “Schubertian” until I read Michael Kennedy’s notes but the trio, and especially the woodwind writing, certainly has that quality. In the Third I especially liked the relaxed trio, which is beautifully done; the Hallé really sing this music. The performance of the Fourth is distinguished, not least the trio, which is not far behind the trio of No. 1 in the nobilmente stakes.

The first four marches appeared in fairly quick succession between 1901 and 1907. Then in 1930 Elgar mined the same seam one last time. The Fifth march has brilliance and dash in its outer sections while the rather melancholic trio perhaps hints at faded or fading glories. These are five splendid performances and it’s good to hear all the marches together.

Top billing on this programme is given to Sea Pictures. A couple of days after the recording sessions for this work Alice Coote sang the work as part of the Hallé’s visit to the BBC Proms. That concert was reviewed for Seen and Heard International by Mark Berry and I saw it on television. I recall that I was very disappointed by Miss Coote’s performance on that occasion. It seemed to me that she was trying far too hard to project and characterise the music. However, recalling her impressive contribution to Sir Mark’s recording of The Dream of Gerontius (review) I wondered if her performance was affected adversely by the need to project into the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall.

Unfortunately, I found myself dissatisfied with this recorded performance too. On a good number of occasions it seemed to me that she was making too much effort to be expressive and, for one thing, this broke up the vocal line. This troubled me quite a lot in ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ where, in addition, I sensed that on occasion the part lay uncomfortably low for her, necessitating a very obvious dip into chest voice. I turned to the fairly recent recording by Sarah Connolly (review). I haven’t listened to that recording for some time but immediately I found it more to my taste. Miss Connolly has a more lustrous timbre but more telling is the fact that she produces both the tone and the line much more evenly that does Alice Coote. Sarah Connolly is just as expressive but you don’t sense that she’s working at the expression whereas Miss Coote seems to try to extract meaning from every syllable. Connolly seems rather more at ease with the lowest-lying passages too.

Alice Coote is better, in ‘In Haven’. This is an emotionally simpler song and she treats it as such. Her account of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ has a lot of good things in it but once again I was distracted by what seems like a striving for meaning. Sarah Connolly is less obvious in that regard. When we get to the line “He shall assist me to look higher” I don’t find quite the same exaltation in Miss Coote’s singing compared to the Connolly reading. Even so, that song caused my resolve to crack. I had not intended to use for comparisons the classic account by Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli but I listened to Baker in this song. She mines an even deeper seam of expression. She finds so much in the words and the music without sounding unnatural or effortful. At “He shall assist me to look higher” Dame Janet’s fervour surpasses even Sarah Connolly; Baker moves the listener.

Perhaps the more overtly dramatic nature of ‘The Swimmer’ responds best to Alice Coote’s approach. She sings this song with great involvement even if Dame Janet takes the palm for ardour.

Elder and the Hallé are simply outstanding in delivering the orchestral accompaniments to all five songs with distinction, finesse and great imagination. Nonetheless, I’m afraid I don’t feel that Alice Coote’s singing of these songs rivals the Connolly or Baker accounts. In the last analysis I found her search for expression too obvious and therefore distracting. To me, this is an example of the old adage “more means less”. However, I ought to say that Ian Lace and, especially, Michael Cookson found more to admire so their views should be read in conjunction with mine.

The recorded sound on this disc is very good. In particular there’s a rich bass response in Polonia and in the Marches. The sessions for these pieces took place in the fairly new BBC studio at MediaCityUK, Salford. I’ve heard one or two other recordings from that source which have struck me as a bit “in your face”. However, the Hallé engineers have produced good results here. The notes are by Michael Kennedy so excellence is guaranteed.

There’s much to admire and enjoy here even though for once Sea Pictures underwhelmed me.
John Quinn

Previous reviews: Ian Lace and Michael Cookson
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