Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) The Hills of Dreamland
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Henk Neven (baritone)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Nathalie de Montmollin (soprano)
Barry Collett (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Watford Colosseum; Turner Sims, Southampton
Texts included SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD271-2 [53:30 + 37:00]
Right at the start of his excellent booklet essay about these orchestral songs, Barry Collett confronts head-on the traditional reservations about Elgar’s output of songs. These, I must confess, are objections which I tend to share. The piano accompaniments, for example, sometimes seem a little awkward, certainly when one contrasts them with the composer’s surefootedness when writing for the orchestra. More seriously, Elgar frequently seems to have selected texts which could, at best be described as second rate. However, there’s much in this SOMM set to make me question whether my assumptions have been a bit lazy. I think that my re-evaluation of these songs has been helped significantly by the quality of the orchestrations.
The three Op 59 songs, which open proceedings, are slightly confusing in that they’re labelled as numbers 3, 5 and 6. As Barry Collett explains, Elgar intended to set six poems by the Canadian, Gilbert Parker but only got round to composing these three. They’re sung here by the Dutch baritone, Henk Neven. One is aware that he’s not an Anglophone, chiefly because his English pronunciation is sometimes slightly cautious. However, I was never distracted by this; his English is good. His voice is well-focussed and his diction is very clear. Overall, I enjoyed his singing very much and he makes a good job of these songs. Elgar’s orchestrations are skilful and interesting, enhancing the songs significantly, I think.
The Wind at Dawn is the first song that Elgar wrote in which he set words by Alice. Twenty-four years later he orchestrated the song and he did so to very good effect. Indeed, the result put me in mind several times of Sea Pictures. The song is not front-rank Elgar but Kathryn Rudge sings it really well. The title of The Pipes of Pan might lead you to expect a somewhat twee song but nothing could be further from the truth, As Barry Collett says, this song is “sombre and powerful”. The orchestral scoring is full of colour and incident and Henk Neven puts the song across very convincingly.
The pair of Op 60 songs are settings of poems by ‘Pietro d’Alba, from Eastern Europe folksong’. As we learn from the notes, the name of the poet is a pseudonym for Elgar himself while there’s not a lot to connect either words or music with eastern Europe. The songs are sung by Kathryn Rudge. The Torch is an ardent love song and Miss Rudge gives a very committed performance of it. Her tone is full and rich and she articulates the words with great clarity. There’s a quasi-refrain, beginning ‘Come, O my love!’ and the music here is quintessential Elgar. Barry Collett believes that The River may have been inspired by an event in December 1909 when the River Wye flooded at Hereford. That seems very plausible when one hears the song that resulted. It’s big, passionate stuff, especially when one hears it in orchestral guise – the ‘Bonus Disc’ offers the chance to hear the piano originals of both songs. Kathryn Rudge’s delivery of the song is marvellous – her singing is both dramatic and involving. In summary, she makes a splendid case for Op 60 and the orchestral version of these songs is very fine. By contrast, Pleading is a tender and intimate song, graced by winning orchestration. Miss Rudge sings it beautifully. Thanks to her and conductor Barry Wordsworth this is an outstanding performance of one of Elgar’s loveliest miniatures. Incidentally, the title of this album comes from the words to this song.
I mean no disrespect to the performers, but it would almost be a kindness to draw a veil over the remaining two songs since they do little for Elgar’s reputation, although one must acknowledge that both songs were written for events in support of good causes. Nonetheless, in both cases the words that Elgar set are dreadful. Follow the Colours sets lines by one Captain William de Courcy Stretton of the Royal Artillery. Henk Neven does what he can for it but the music suggests that Elgar’s imagination was not fired. At least the music of The King’s Way is better: it is largely based on the trio melody from the Pomp and Circumstance March No 4. However, the words, by Alice Elgar are dire. At least the song offers another chance to hear from Kathryn Rudge.
The disc is completed by a distinguished account of Elgar’s incidental music for Grania and Diarmid, a play by W B Yeats. There’s a slight slip in SOMM’s track list: the first item is ‘Introduction’. The music is very atmospheric – it has a legendary quality - and Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra turn in a very poetic account of it. The ‘Funeral
March’ that follows is top-drawer Elgar. This is magnificent, noble music, imbued with patrician grief. Finally, we hear the song, There are seven that pull the thread. Kathryn Rudge really draws the listener in with expressive and beautifully judged singing.
SOMM offer a bonus disc, recorded under the auspices of the Elgar Society, in which the Swiss soprano Nathalie de Montmollin sings eleven of Elgar’s songs with accomplished piano accompaniment by Barry Collett. Miss de Montmollin is clearly engaged by the songs and she sings them with no little feeling. I’m sorry to say, though, that in several ways her singing was not to my taste. Unfortunately, her English is not as good as Henk Neven’s and whereas I merely noted as I listened to him that I was not experiencing an Anglophone singer I’m afraid Nathalie de Montmollin’s accented English is something of a distraction. I could have lived with that, I’m sure, but too often she seems simply to try too hard to the detriment of the line. There’s something of an edge to the tone at times and when she sings loudly the vibrato is excessive.
It was instructive to hear her accounts of the two Op 60 songs in comparison with the performances on the other CD. For all Barry Collett’s skill, Elgar’s piano parts are nowhere near as interesting as the orchestral versions. I didn’t feel that Nathalie de Montmollin’s singing was as rapturous as Kathryn Rudge’s in The Torch and in The River, Miss de Montmollin can’t compete with the refulgent tone of her English colleague and the climaxes are over-projected with too much vibrato.
Nathalie de Montmollin is heard to better advantage in Muleteer’s Serenade. Here, much of the music is quite quiet and her singing is more enjoyable, perhaps because she’s not pushing the voice so much. This song is a setting of some lines from Cervantes’ Don Quixote in an English translation – an unexpected choice of text for Elgar. This song and The Mill Wheel: Winter (another setting of words by Alice) were unpublished and virtually forgotten; here they receive their first recordings. Neither is particularly memorable but it’s good to have the opportunity to hear them. Another of Nathalie de Montmollin’s selections is valuable, even though it seems to have been recorded before. Dry those fair, those crystal eyes was not generally available until 1987; it was completely new to me. Much better known – and one of Elgar’s best songs – is Queen Mary’s Song. This is another song in a predominantly gentle vein and, as with Muleteer’s Serenade, Miss de Montmollin makes a good job of it, conveying the wistful melancholy well.
I’m very sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about much of the singing on this bonus disc. However, the appreciation of singing is notoriously subjective and it may well be that other listeners will respond more favourably than I did. I have no reservations about any aspects of the performances on the main disc, however, and Kathryn Rudge’s contributions are outstanding. That disc is the reason for acquiring this set.
The recordings are good and the documentation, authored by Barry Collett and Andrew Neill, is excellent.
Contents Orchestral Songs
Song Cycle, Op.59 (1909)
Oh, soft was the song (No 3)
Was it some golden star? (No 5)
Twilight (No 6)
The Wind at Dawn (1888, Orch 1912)
The Pipes of Pan (1900, orch 1901)
Two Songs, Op.60 (1909/10, orch 1912)
Pleading, Op.48 (1908)
Follow the Colours: Marching Song for Soldiers (1908, rev for orch 1914)
The King’s Way (1909)
Incidental Music to Grania and Diarmid (1901)
Song: There are seven that pull the thread
Elgar Society Bonus CD
Like to the Damask Rose (1892)
The Shepherd’s Song (1892)
Dry those fair, those crystal eyes (1899)
The Mill Wheel: Winter (1892)
Muleteer’s Serenade (1894)
As I laye a thynkynge (1888)
Queen Mary’s Song (1889)
The Torch (1909/10)
The River (1909/10)
In the Dawn (1902)
Speak Music (1902)
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