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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Black Knight - cantata for chorus and orchestra (1893) [36:07]
Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands for chorus and orchestra, Op.27 (1895) [25:03]
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1995, All Saints' Church, Tooting, London
CHANDOS CHAN10946X [61:24]

Richard Hickox began his Elgar voyage with EMI Classics but crowned it with Chandos. The EMI recordings supplemented that label's work with Boult, Groves and Ledger. Groves stepped up to the studio podium between 1976 and 1984 with complete recordings of Caractacus and Light of Life. He also made a disc premiere of The Black Knight leaving Hickox clear to play his pre-Chandos part with Banner of St George and Spirit of England. Having freshly hitched his star to Chandos Hickox completed a new generation of the three major oratorios: The Dream of Gerontius (CHAN241-46), The Apostles (CHAN241-49) and The Kingdom (CHAN241-54). In addition he was selected to make the label's sturdy digital recordings of Caractacus and The Light of Life. All of these have appeared in the Chandos Hickox Legacy line.

The Black Knight is early Elgar and lies among the works that struggled longer than most to shake off the doldrums of fashion. It even resisted the excerpting that kept Caractacus as a presence courtesy of the splendid Triumphal March. Hickox makes a great case for The Black Knight - superior to the almost ordinary Groves version on EMI which in any event is in four tracks (one per scene) by comparison with the much more helpful Chandos which is in nine tracks.

It helps that The Black Knight is amongst the most compact of Elgar's major choral works. It's only 36 minutes by the side of the longer Caractacus, Light of Life and King Olaf; never mind the great trilogy. The Black Knight starts with a sturdy Wagnerian swing and good ideas abound throughout. This would have had performances once fashion's chimes had rung Elgar back into acceptance and would have done so even if Elgar had died in 1900 rather than 1934. A great choral trainer, Hickox ensures that both the full choir - remember there are no solo voices - and the orchestra blaze and whisper with transcendent skill. There's a fierce touch of Froissart about this work - remember Barbirolli's lances-high EMI recording of the Overture? If only Barbirolli had had time to take up The Black Knight. In any event Hickox's dark brilliance is matched by the sturdily glowering and impactful audio treatment courtesy of Couzens, father and son. Nothing is done to dilute Hickox's candid conviction that this is a big event.

The mammoth blaze of The Black Knight is carried over with less success in Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands. This happy work - a souvenir of the Elgar’s holidaying in Upper Bavaria - is too darkly draped and too heavily armoured in Hickox's hands. As a work it is given nothing less than a strong outing but the score's delight, wispy featheriness and fairy wingbeat suffer. I compared Norman del Mar's EMI recording with the Bournemouth forces and found it superior. Del Mar and his ideally chosen forces find a fly-away quality - a tripping innocent happiness - that lifts the spirit high in a way that the Hickox does not match.

The booklet presents all the sung words in English, French and German. No corners have been cut and there is no dumbing down for this reissue. You get what the purchasers of the full price product would have received when first issued as CHAN9436 in 1996. The classy liner-notes are by Michael Kennedy and are reproduced in the booklet in the original English and in translation into German and French.

The alternative recordings mentioned above (Groves' The Black Knight and Del Mar's Bavarian Highlands) are not currently available except as part of a bigger package.

Two Elgar works of the 1890s for choir and orchestra in well recorded and documented muscular presentations at lower mid-price each with Germanic associations and each premiered at the Worcester Festival.

Rob Barnett



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