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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar Remastered
Various artists / Sir Edward Elgar
rec. 1919-1934
Remasterings by Lani Spahr
Includes Stereo reconstructions and unpublished takes ADD
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD 261-4 [278:53]

Sir Edward Elgar was probably the first great composer who was able to embrace the gramophone as a means to document his interpretations of his own music. Between 1914 and 1933 he made a large number of recordings for HMV. Back in the early 1990s, EMI issued three sets of CDs, nine well-filled discs in total, under the collective title The Elgar Edition. The Complete Electrical Recordings of Sir Edward Elgar. These invaluable releases gave us the opportunity to hear the composer’s interpretations of many of his greatest scores and a host of shorter pieces, all in very successful transfers from 78s. In 2013, the American audio restoration engineer, Lani Spahr was responsible for a four-disc set from Music & Arts which brought to new life all Elgar’s acoustic recordings from the period 1914 to 1925. My colleague Jonathan Woolf and I both found the set fascinating (review ~ review).

Now Mr Spahr has turned his attention to some of Elgar’s electrical recordings. When I first saw this set advertised, I assumed that the contents duplicated parts of the aforementioned EMI set. Up to a point I was right – but only up to a point. What we have here is a release that fascinatingly complements EMI’s invaluable documentary set. The recordings come from Elgar’s own collection which are in the ownership of Arthur Reynolds, with whom Spahr had previously collaborated on the Music & Arts set. As Mr Spahr explains in a very detailed booklet essay, many of the discs in Elgar’s personal collection were test pressings which for whatever reason ended up not being used. He has included them here and so, for example, the recording of the First Symphony, which used 11 individual matrices, here contains seven which have never been published: the gaps were filled by using four discs that were part of the HMV published recording. If I’ve done my sums correctly, I think only about 12 of the 58 tracks on these CDs have previously been published.

The other noteworthy feature of this release is that quite a number of the tracks on discs one and two are presented in stereo. This subject, too, is addressed in great detail by Lani Spahr in the booklet. Attempting to summarise his thesis – accurately, I hope – he found that a number of the matrices, especially of the Cello Concerto, seemed to be in pairs with different matrix numbers but containing the same musical material. While he was mulling over this surprise, he took down from his shelves his copy of Mark Obert-Thorn’s Naxos transfers of a number of Elgar-conducted performances and saw that the disc includes part of the Cockaigne Overture in “accidental stereo”. My colleagues Dominy Clements and Em Marshall-Luck have summarised the background in their respective reviews of that disc. In essence, as Dominy put it, “It was common practice to have two turntables running during the cutting of wax master discs, one disc being kept as a safety, or being set at a lower cutting level in case of peak distortions. As an exception to the norm, one microphone was used for each machine on this recording (as opposed to a single microphone feeding both machines), so, by painstakingly synchronising both ‘takes’, Mark Obert-Thorn has managed to reproduce all of that stereo information.” Here, Lani Spahr has taken that process further and is able to present most of the contents of CDs 1 and 2, including the complete Cello Concerto, in stereo.

In listening to these SOMM discs, I’ve found it fascinating to compare Lani Spahr’s results with the transfers on EMI’s Elgar Edition. Let me hasten to say that the opportunity/excuse to revisit those EMI transfers has reminded me forcibly what terrific results were achieved by those responsible for putting all those 78s on to CD in the first place. Those EMI discs were the work of such experts as Paul Baily, Michael Dutton, Anthony C Griffiths, John Holland and Andrew Walter; Elgar collectors will be forever in their debt. However, Lani Spahr has used different source material; furthermore, as in so many other spheres, digital remastering technology has moved on in the last three decades.

So, when I listened to the Spahr transfer of Beatrice Harrison’s electrical recording of the Cello Concerto a number of things struck me. Firstly, thanks to the “accidental stereo” we hear the soloist in the left-hand channel. Secondly, there does appear to be extra space around the sound of the orchestra and soloists – though the EMI transfer was also pretty good in that regard. Perhaps most importantly, I detect just a bit more richness and body in the Spahr transfer and the soloist, whose sound is very present on both transfers, comes across very well on the SOMM disc. The performance is fascinating, too. I had forgotten how in the first movement Elgar presses ahead quite markedly in a couple of orchestral tutti passages (2:15 and again at 6:15) before reverting to tempo primo when the cellist re-enters. Beatrice Harrison isn’t an infallible soloist but it’s important to remember that, as the Elgar expert Jerrold Northrop Moore has pointed out, she became the composer’s soloist of choice: once she had played for him in the acoustic recording of 1919/20, he specified her thereafter as the soloist whenever he was asked to conduct the work in public. It’s also to Harrison’s desire for improvement that we owe much of the material here issued on CD 2. Reverting to the recording of the concerto, I detect a bit more surface hiss in the EMI transfer, though not to a troubling extent. I think the extra degree of richness in the Spahr transfer that I’ve mentioned is especially pleasing in the slow movement.

CD 2 is, I think, more for specialists. In a note accompanying another EMI issue of the 1928 recording, Jerrold Northrop Moore commented that Beatrice Harrison asked for a good number of re-takes in her quest to get the best possible results. That was why the recording was not completed on 23 March; further sessions were arranged for 13 June. Most of disc 2 is devoted to 11 different and previously unpublished takes of the concerto. These are interesting to hear and it’s good that they’ve been included but, as I say, I suspect that they will be of most interest to Elgar specialists. This disc also includes a transfer of the 1919/20 acoustic recording of the concerto - in the highly abridged form of the score that Elgar sanctioned for this recording - and there’s an excellent article in the booklet by the American cellist and author, Terry King, about both of the Harrison recordings. Disc two ends with an interesting curiosity which I suspect has not previously been issued. It’s a private disc, made for HRH Princess Victoria (1868-1935). The Princess was one of the daughters of King Edward VII and she was a music lover. The recording in question was made in 1928; on it Beatrice Harrison plays the slow movement of the Cello Concerto with Princess Victoria herself playing the piano.

Returning to disc one, we have Elgar’s 1933 recording of Cockaigne with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the last 4:58 of which is presented here in “accidental stereo”. What a vivid, exciting performance this is! Yes, the recording is some 87 years old but the vitality and humanity of Elgar’s interpretation shines through, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra shows every sign that Adrian Boult had already honed it into a very fine ensemble. As with the 1928 Cello Concerto recording, the EMI transfer was excellent but I think Lani Spahr’s transfer has a little more body and roundness to it. The performance of the Prelude to The Kingdom is superb. Often Elgar’s conducting of this piece has passion and urgency while in other episodes he brings out expertly the nobility in the music. Hearing it again made me so sorry that there is no further surviving evidence of Elgar conducting this great oratorio. Comparison of the Spahr and EMI transfers is a matter of fine margins but it seems to me that Lani Spahr has successfully tamed somewhat the brightness of the treble. Like Cockaigne, the closing minutes are in “accidental stereo”. The remaining items are smaller-scale pieces. One of these on which I do want to comment is the final track on the disc: Elgar conducting the LSO and the Philharmonic Choir in William Croft’s O God our help in ages past in London’s Queen’s Hall. My goodness, the performance is very grand and deliberate, but even though some may find the treatment of the music somewhat on the heavy side I can overlook that on account of the genuine sense of occasion that’s conveyed. The choir comes over well and they certainly offer committed singing. The transfer is particularly successful in bringing out the full, imposing bass of the recording.

Discs three and four contain no “accidental stereo” takes; everything is in mono, and none the worse for that. Disc three is particularly noteworthy for bringing us a complete performance of the First Symphony. As I mentioned earlier, much of this derives from unissued test pressings; where there were gaps in the sequence of pressings Lani Spahr has used one of the pressings that comprised the commercial release. As such, the performance isn’t identical with the performance found in EMI’s Elgar Edition. The published performance has also been released by Naxos and when he heard that disc my colleague, Dominy Clements admirably summed up the pros and cons of Elgar’s recorded performance (review). Despite some occasional imperfections in the playing, ever since I first heard this recording, I’ve found it very moving to hear the composer himself interpreting this great symphony, and nowhere more so than in the deeply eloquent slow movement. Both the EMI and Spahr transfers are very good but perhaps the Spahr offers just a little more body.

The EMI Elgar Edition included Elgar’s 1927 LSO recording of the Second Symphony. It also included two additional takes of the Rondo, the first of which was included also by Naxos when they issued that performance (review). Lani Spahr doesn’t offer the symphony complete but he does include a third take of the Rondo, which has never been published. Goodness me, Elgar’s way with this part of the symphony is really vital; if you hear this and haven’t already heard his recorded account of the whole symphony this extract will surely whet your appetite. This disc also includes four previously unissued alternative takes from the famous 1932 Menuhin recording of the Violin Concerto. There is also an unpublished take of Variations V, VI and VII from Elgar’s 1926 recording of the ‘Enigma’ Variations.

Disc four is devoted entirely to previously unpublished takes of short pieces. I particularly like the warm, affectionate account of Dream Children No 1. That item is conducted by Lawrence Collingwood, as were the two excerpts from Caractacus. These items are the famous sessions that were relayed down the telephone line to Elgar who was lying on his death bed in Worcester. The Wand of Youth items, conducted by Elgar, are also well worth your attention. ‘Tame Bear’ is full of joie de vivre and the string portamenti give a real sense of authenticity. ‘Wild Bear’ is charming. The excerpt from The Banner of St George was set down in the same sessions as the William Croft hymn which I mentioned earlier. I don’t believe that even Elgar’s greatest fans would assert that The Banner of St George was one of his finest works. However, the Philharmonic Choir responds to the composer’s direction with great spirit and the performance is well recorded.

I can’t imagine how many hours of painstaking, detailed work have gone into the work of digitising and transferring these performances to CD. Lani Spahr has clearly pursued his task with great dedication and skill and I think the results justify his many hours of work. We know already that he is a fine audio restoration engineer and this set of four discs proves that in abundance. It’s quite astonishing to hear Elgar’s own performances speak to us so vividly across the decades. We are indeed fortunate that this great composer left us such a recorded legacy and this set from SOMM expands even further our understanding of his achievements, both as a composer and a conductor. I’d say that this set is a very valuable supplement to EMI’s Elgar Edition. In addition to presenting the performances in very good sound SOMM have documented the release very thoroughly with a comprehensive booklet.

John Quinn

Contents
All conducted by Sir Edward Elgar unless otherwise stated.

Disc 1 [71:07]
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85, as published [25:08]
Beatrice Harrison (cello)
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. March & June 1928, Kingsway Hall, London
Cockaigne, Op. 40, “In London Town”: Overture (mono) [8:41]
Cockaigne, Op. 40, “In London Town”: Overture (transition to stereo) [4:58]
rec 11 April 1933, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
BBC Symphony Orchestra
The Kingdom, Op. 51: Prelude (mono) [4:07]
The Kingdom, Op. 51: Prelude (transition to stereo) [4:39]
rec 11 April 1933, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Rosemary [3:38]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 7 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
3 Characteristic Pieces, Op. 10: No. 1. Mazurka [3:21]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 8 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
May Song [3:51]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 7 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
Serenade lyrique [4:20]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 7 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2, Op. 1b: I. March [3:57]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 20 December 1928, Kingsway Hall, London
William CROFT O God our help in ages past [4:20]
Philharmonic Choir; London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 3 February 1928, Queen’s Hall, London
Disc 2 [75:26]
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 – eleven unissued test pressings [61:20]
Beatrice Harrison (cello)
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. March & June 1928, Kingsway Hall, London
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 – Abridged (Acoustic recording) [12:44]
Beatrice Harrison (cello);
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 22 December 1919 and 19 November 1920 at Hayes, Middlesex
Cello Concerto: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85: III. Adagio (private disc) [3:55]
Beatrice Harrison (cello); HRH Princess Victoria (piano)
rec. 20 August 1928
Disc 3 [74:41]
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op 55 [46:20]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 20 -22 November 1930, Kingsway Hall, London
Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 63: III. Rondo (mono) [4:20]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 15 July 1927, Queen’s Hall, London
Violin Concerto – Four alternative takes [17:23]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 14 July 1932, Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, “Enigma”: Variation 5: R. P. A. – Variation 6: Ysobel – Variation 7: Troyte (unissued mono alternative takes) [4:32]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 28 April 1926, Queen’s Hall, London
Disc 4 [57:39]
Caractacus: Triumphal March [6:52]
Caractacus: Woodland Interlude [1:52]
London Symphony Orchestra / Lawrence Collingwood
rec. 22 January 1934, Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London
Dream Children, Op. 43 (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [2:48]
London Symphony Orchestra / Lawrence Collingwood
rec. 22 January 1934, Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London
Rosemary (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [3:43]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 7 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
Serenade lyrique (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [4:16]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 7 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
Severn Suite, Op. 87: II. Toccata: Tournament (version for orchestra) (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [4:03]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 14 April 1932, Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London
3 Characteristic Pieces, Op. 10: No. 1. Mazurka (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [3:18]
New Symphony Orchestra
rec. 8 November 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 1: V. ‘Fairy Pipers’ [4:11]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 1: III. ‘Minuet’ [2:12]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 1: IV. ‘Sun Dance’ [2:27]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: V. ‘The Tame Bear’ [2:12]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: VI. ‘The Wild Bears’ [2:16]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: II. ‘The Little Bells’ [2:32]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: III. ‘Moths and Butterflies’ [2:24]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: II. ‘The Little Bells’ (take 2) [2:30]
The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2: III. ‘Moths and Butterflies’ (take 2) [2:05]
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 19 & 20 December 1928, Kingsway Hall, London
The Banner of St. George, Op. 33: ‘It comes from the misty ages’ (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [4:38]
Philharmonic Choir,
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 3 February 1928, Queen’s Hall, London
National Anthem: God Save the King (arr. Elgar) (unissued mono alternative takes) (mono) [3:11]
Philharmonic Choir,
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 3 February 1928, Queen’s Hall, London



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