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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Falstaff Op.68 Symphonic Study in C minor (1913) [35.57]
Songs Op.59 (1909-10) [6.31]
Songs Op.60 for voice and piano (1909-12). Orchestrated 1912 by the composer [6.37]
Grania and Diarmid Op.42 (1901) Incidental Music and Funeral March [10.10]
The Wind at Dawn (1888) for voice and piano (orch. Elgar 1912) [3.13]
The Pipes of Pan (1899) for voice and piano (orch. Elgar 1900)[3.48]
Pleading Op.48 (1908) for voice and piano (orch. Elgar 1908)[2.23]
The Kings Way (1909) for voice and piano (orch. Elgar 1909)[4.05]
Kindly do not SMOKE, Smoking Cantata (1919) [00.49]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2017, MediaCity UK, Salford, UK
Reviewed in surround

It is a big surprise to discover that this is the only hi-res recording of Elgar's Falstaff but not of his songs. These last, piano accompaniment only, have been the subject of two Channel Classics SACDs, but if the orchestral dress appeals then you are back to this new Chandos. Just as HMV/EMI championed the composer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (not one of which is available on any form of hi-res reissue!), Chandos have been his prime champion in the current era. We are fortunate that this is a masterly rendering of the main work, Falstaff, fit to be put up again Barbirolli's classic 1964 issue with the Hallé. Sir Andrew Davis exceeds even his own high standards in moulding this most subtle and complex of scores to perfection. Just as with Barbirolli one can hear the events taking place: the revelry, the battles, the noisy sleeping; and also the emotional conflicts, the dreams, the rejections and the deep nostalgia. Whether Elgar gives us bombast or filigree scoring, it all emerges clearly and with the requisite impact. The bass drum in particular is the most convincing I have heard for a long time as it touches in the off-beat rhythms. All this is down not just to the engineering but to the superb musicianship of the BBC Philharmonic. Is there something about the Manchester music scene that makes for great Elgar performances? It is still going on with Sir Mark Elder and the current Hallé. But please will someone get those master-tapes out of storage before the mice eat them and give us some top level modern hi-res transfers at 24/96. Even those awful downloads would be better than nothing.

As a valuable make-weight for Falstaff we are given two movements from Grania and Diarmid. These may be short but they are no mere chips off the workbench. This is top Elgar, the Funeral March being particularly impressive.

The rest of this SACD is a very satisfying find. I confess I had not even thought about Elgar as a song writer but the selection we have here in orchestral garb are without exception a delight. Full of nostalgia but always with attractive melodies, albeit short-breathed compared to the Elgar of Gerontius and all the other masterly oratorios. Roderick Williams is at his magnificent best here. His diction is so clear one could write the words down accurately from his rendering. I cannot ignore the 49 second long Smoking Cantata, a grand-scale musical jest indeed that goes a long way to compensate for the lack of musical jokes in Falstaff despite all the goings-on.

Excellent notes on the Smoking Cantata and everything else, plus full sung texts, are in the booklet. The notes are in English, German and French, the texts only in English. I have not come across notes by Dr Farrington before but apart from his philosophical and socio-medical writing he is clearly quite a wizz at music writing. He provides enough detail of the main work to follow the action even if he doesn't mimic the efforts of William McNaught on the original LPs and give timings to the second against the performance when each event takes place!

Dave Billinge



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