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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Music for Chorus and Orchestra
Ecce sacerdos magnus (1888) [3:31]
Te Deum Op.34 No.1 (1897) [11:27]
Benedictus Op.34 No.2 (1897) [6:58]
O Hearken Thou Op.64 (1911) [4:20]
Great is the Lord (Psalm 48) Op.67 (1912) [9:00]
Give unto the Lord (Psalm 29) Op.74 (1914) [7:40]
Spanish Serenade Op.23 (1892) [4:30]
Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands Op.27 (1895) [25:18]
Brighton Festival Chorus
BBC Concert Orchestra/ Barry Wordsworth
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Harmoniemesse Hob.XXII:14 - Benedictus (excerpt) [4:11]
Trude Konrad (soprano), Imgard Dornbach-Ziegler (contralto), Ludwig von Haas (tenor), Heinrich Seebach (baritone), Karl Otto Bortzi (organ)
Munich Cathedral Choir & Orchestra/Ludwig Berberich
rec. 2016, Watford Colosseum London, (Elgar); Haydn released by the Haydn Society of America in 1949
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD267 [77:07]

Another typically valuable, well performed and well-presented disc from Somm. By my reckoning this is their second collaboration with the BBC Concert Orchestra to feature vocal/orchestral music by Elgar although the Somm/Elgar catalogue encompasses many discs and performers featuring this composer. The earlier disc presented ‘Elgar’s music in Wartime’ and was very impressive. Here, former principal conductor (now conductor laureate) of the BBC CO, Barry Wordsworth, continues his very fruitful relationship with the orchestra and they are joined by the Brighton Festival Chorus. The disc has been issued under the auspices of the Elgar Society. None of the eight works performed here is new to the catalogue - although I cannot remember hearing the early Ecce sacerdos magnus in its orchestral version before - but the quality of the performances and the collation of these works together onto a single disc makes this of particular value and appeal.

The Watford Colosseum is a regular recording venue for many labels, and the generous acoustic and feeling of space certainly suit this repertoire very well indeed. As ever, the BBC CO prove themselves to be a remarkably flexible ensemble producing a sound that is ideally robust and rich. Apart from the string works I had not encountered Wordsworth conducting Elgar before on disc but this is very fine - opulent and full of swagger in the large festive works, tender and telling in the more intimate passages. Sacred and secular works for chorus - whether a cappella, or with keyboard/organ/orchestral accompaniment form a key part of Elgar’s output throughout his creative life. His earliest opuses were written for the local Catholic Church which he attended and the aforementioned Ecce sacerdos magnus was in effect written to order, to provide music for the visit to the church by the Bishop of Birmingham. In a typically apt manner Somm point the similarity of the opening of Elgar's work with the Benedictus from Haydn's Harmoniemesse which liner-note writer Andrew Neill assumes must have been part of the music played at the visit. Somm have unearthed an archive performance from 1949 played at a tempo - which today would seem to belie the indicated allegro molto - which reveals the close similarity between the works. This is provided as a four minute appendix to close the disc - not something I can imagine needing to hear more than once - especially in this excerpted form - but a nice touch all the same.

The Elgar work is impressive - as with all the music here especially in the orchestral version - its significance is its place as the last of the music he composed for St. George’s Church where he had been employed for four years and the first of the ceremonial works dotted throughout his coming career. Some hear echoes of the masterpieces yet to come and anyone who loves this composer’s work will want to know it, but perhaps more telling is the fact that at 31 years old Elgar was still finding his true voice - there is little of the mature Elgar here. As mentioned, all of the music performed here can be heard in non-orchestral versions. Of course the differences extend beyond the presence or otherwise of an orchestra. For the sacred music, the non-orchestral versions on disc tend to be performed by Cathedral or church choirs and in the versions I know this often means boy trebles. Certainly that is the case with the old EMI/Christopher Robinson/Worcester Cathedral recording and I think James O’Donnell's Hyperion collection from Westminster Abbey. The Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea on Creature Classics and Robinson - again - on Naxos the Choir of St. John’s Cambridge uses mixed voices but with predominantly youthful soprano lines. It is hard not to be seduced by the brilliance of Elgar’s orchestral accompaniments especially when they expand to grand and dramatic climaxes but I have to say I do enjoy the clarity and tonal brilliance a good church/cathedral choir bring - if in doubt collect both.

Richard Hickox provides the most direct competition in terms of orchestral versions of these works. The problem for the collector is that very fine indeed though the Hickox versions are, they are spread across various discs and labels. The big Te Deum & Benedictus settings form an imposing pair that fully warrant the orchestral setting. Both Hickox and Wordsworth set confidently striding tempi - the EMI recording is rather resonant, blurring some of the orchestral detail tellingly caught so well on Somm. Here and throughout the new disc the Brighton Festival Chorus sing with fervour and energy. I have one slight observation - and it is to do with the tonal freshness of the upper line. In comparison to the previously mentioned church choirs or indeed Hickox’s LSO chorus from the mid 1980’s all have a more focused and brilliant timbre which I prefer. The older EMI recordings suffer from the resonance and placement of the choir, meaning that the diction is occasionally lost and in that regard the new recording is more successful. But good although the Brighton singers are, I prefer the LSO chorus overall.

Curiously, given Elgar’s Catholic upbringing, his major sacred settings were Anglican commissions. The two Psalm settings; Nos. 29 & 48 come from his very best compositional period - Great is the Lord (Psalm48) has the adjacent opus number to Falstaff and Give Unto the Lord (Psalm 29) comes just before the outbreak of World War I and the music written in response to that. Elgar described the Psalm 48 setting as a “gigantic anthem” and it certainly opens with a boldly striding passage; here, as elsewhere, Wordsworth is very good at picking a tempo that allows the music to have weight and poise while maintaining a good momentum. Curiously the extended central baritone solo is uncredited on this new disc - whoever sung it here deserves to be named as it is performed with sensitivity. Hickox had Stephen Roberts who is also predictably fine. Hickox’s version of the other Psalm was originally coupled with his version of Spirit of England - a version that remains one of my favourite performances of that great work - again featuring the LSO chorus. Musically the virtues of the two performances are again very similar – though I prefer the thwack of the bass drum on Hickox’s disc!

After an interlude provided by the early Spanish Serenade the disc concludes with the always charming Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands. This 1895 set of six choral songs is special in Elgar’s output for several reasons. In it he consistently sounds like the mature composer for pretty much the first time. In setting his wife’s poetry he found a source of joy and inspiration that resulted in one of his most enduringly benevolent and light-hearted works. It was written to commemorate a series of happy holidays the newly married couple spent in Bavaria between 1893 and 1897. At this time reasonably affluent middle-class couples were taking advantage of the ever expanding railway network to travel around Europe effecting their own versions of a Grand Tour. The Elgar’s did not have the financial resources at this time to do that so they were ‘limited’ to Bavaria but clearly this was a very happy time. The orchestral- and piano-accompanied versions seem to have been conceived side by side in part as a practical acknowledgement that the latter would facilitate more performances. That said, it seems certain that from the outset Elgar ‘heard’ the work as having an orchestral accompaniment, so this is the version to hear where possible. For such an attractive work there seem to have been surprisingly few versions of the orchestral score. I know only two others; from Norman Del Mar on EMI/Warner with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and Chorus and Hickox again, still with the LSO Chorus [and orchestra now] but for Chandos as the coupling to his fine version of the even earlier Black Knight. The Chandos disc is very good from start to frinish. Interpretively it is nip and tuck between Hickox and Wordsworth. I certainly prefer Hickox’s brighter opening to the first song ‘The Dance’- for about the only time on this new disc I find Wordsworth’s significantly weightier tempo a misjudgement in this essentially light music. The Brighton Singers sound somehow fresher throughout this work too - I wonder if it was recorded earlier in the two days of sessions? Conversely, with near identical timings, Wordsworth’s ‘Lullaby’ is more affectionately phrased, with the BBC strings slipping in a lovely little glissando up to a harmonic. The LSO ladies are slightly more secure on their first entry in No.4 ‘Aspiration’ - this is a lovely movement with a dignified vocal line over very effective string writing, proof if proof were needed that this is an orchestral conception. Wordsworth chooses the slightly swifter tempo for the concluding The Marksmen and it brings the set to a suitably unbuttoned and energetic conclusion. As mentioned the appendix of the archive recording of the Haydn mass is fun to hear once.

As ever, the Somm presentation is exemplary - the omission of the unnamed baritone soloist excepted. An extended and excellent liner note in English only by Andrew Neill is presented in a nice clear font and accompanied by full texts. The engineering throughout is very fine making the best of the venue and the ever excellent BBC Concert Orchestra. Barry Wordsworth proves to be an impressive Elgarian throughout. Possibly if pushed I would stick with Hickox on a piece by piece basis and that is purely based on my preference for his choir(s) even though that does come at the price of the EMI recordings sacrificing detail for resonant splendour. But for a unique and valuable programme of Elgar that is sometimes vintage and never less than impressive this is a disc hard to resist.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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