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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, orch. Elgar 1912) [6.37]
Grania and Diarmid Op.42 (1901) Incidental Music and Funeral March [10.10]
The Wind at Dawn for voice and piano (1888, orch. Elgar 1912) [3.13]
The Pipes of Pan for voice and piano (1899, orch. Elgar 1900)[3.48]
Pleading Op.48 for voice and piano (orch. Elgar 1908)[2.23]
The Kings Way 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, MediaCityUK, Manchester
Reviewed as standard CD

Conor Farrington, author of Chandos’s liner notes, tells us that Falstaff’s dedicatee, Sir Landon Ronald, conducted the work twice in London in 1913, despite having admitted that he could ‘never make head or tail of the piece’. Ronald would have found this CD helpful because Chandos has divided Falstaff into no less than eleven tracks and listed them with their descriptors at the start of their booklet, and complemented this with Farrington’s comprehensive and informative notes.

Elgar does not give us Falstaff, the figure of fun in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the portly knight is somewhat ludicrously in love. This music charts the progress of the ultimately tragic, deluded Falstaff of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; a man whose close but tenuous friendship with the young Prince Hal flourishes but then declines, ending with the now King’s brutal rejection of the knight and the latter’s death.

Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic tell the story of the mock-heroic knight unerringly. Davis is more expansive than some interpreters, for example taking about a minute-and-a-half longer than Sir John Barbirolli in his passionately committed 1964 EMI stereo recording. Expansiveness in this score is no bad thing when – as here – it facilitates expression without losing forward momentum. The final track, in which the repudiation and death of Falstaff is portrayed, is appropriately moving at the hands of this conductor and orchestra. The playing is warm, refined and responsive throughout, as expected.

So why do I hesitate to make a full recommendation? To me, the sound balance stands in the way. The quality matches the playing of the orchestra in being warm and refined and the internal balance is fine. But, heard as a standard CD, the overall image is somewhat distanced, seemingly placing a veil over the music and reducing its effectiveness in terms of definition, colour and impact, particularly in climaxes. This is noticeable when the rousing Falstaff’s march, which commences Part III, is compared to the corresponding episode in Barbirolli’s recording. The Hallé Orchestra’s playing and the analogue sound by no means match the refinement of the BBC and Chandos but the immediacy, colour and impact of Barbirolli’s recording generates a degree of excitement which I don’t experience anywhere in the new recording.

Apart from the Grania and Diarmid movements, which are purely orchestral (and well played) the balance of the disc consists of a selection of Elgar’s songs, sung by Roderick Williams. Some of these were originally written for voice and piano but later orchestrated by the composer. It is the orchestral versions which are heard here.

The songs range quite widely in mood from the elfin-like The Pipes of Pan to the imperial sounding The King’s Way. The latter borrows the melody from the trio of the fourth Pomp and Circumstance March – surely the greatest march of the five. I’ll concede that my favourite song in this collection is the shortest: Kindly do not SMOKE. It is a satirical piece in mock oratorio style, written after Elgar had been reprimanded for smoking in a friend’s house. Evidently, such behaviour was contentious long before the risks of passive smoking were known.

Williams is a distinguished artist with an impressive baritone voice which he deploys with both subtlety and power, when and as required. He characterises the songs superbly. It is hard to imagine them better done.

Rob W McKenzie
Previous review: Dave Billinge (Recording of the Month)



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