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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar from America: Volume II
Cockaigne (In London Town), Concert-Overture, Op.40 [14:09]
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op.47 [14:22]
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61 [40:55]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent, Arturo Toscanini (Introduction and Allegro)
rec. April 1940 (Introduction and Allegro), February 1945 (Cockaigne, Violin Concerto), Radio City Studio 8H, New York City
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SOMM ARIADNE 5008 [69:27]

This is the second volume released by Somm entitled ‘Elgar from America’, featuring significant performances recorded live in New York venues, in restorations by Lani Spahr. The previous volume was reviewed by three of my colleagues –Rob Barnett, John Quinn and Ian Lace. This latest release confines itself to one location, the notorious Studio 8H.

It was August Jaeger (Nimrod) who put the idea for "a brilliant, quick scherzo" to Elgar, and the end result was the Introduction and Allegro, a work of supreme achievement for string quartet and string orchestra. Before receiving this disc for review, I wouldn’t have associated Toscanini with this work, but the accompanying notes inform us that he performed it on several occasions and, in 1911 rehearsed it in Turin in preparation for the composer’s appearance there. This performance dates from April 20, 1940, and was the only occasion he conducted it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini delivers an athletic reading which is both confident and robust. It’s one of those performances which plumbs the depths and wide expressive range of this glorious score, and the virtuosity of the string playing is admirable. The quartet consists of a fine line-up - Mischa Mischakoff, Edwin Bachmann, Carlton Cooley and Frank Miller – all principals of the NBC. Toscanini achieves admirable results in the the interaction between quartet and orchestra. My only qualm is the first appearance of the “Welsh tune”. This exquisite melody, first introduced on the solo viola in the early pages, came to the composer whilst on a trip to Llangrannog in Wales in 1901. It appears five times throughout in various guises. Those, like myself, who hold aloft Barbirollii’s 1960s EMI version with the Sinfonia of London and the Allegri String Quartet, will feel that the theme sags on first encounter in Toscanini’s traversal. This doesn’t seem to be a problem when it reappears. On the fifth and final time the NBC players declaim it in all its glory, resplendent and triumphant.

It was in February 1945 that Malcolm Sargent, not yet knighted, appeared for the first time in a professional capacity in America. He was billed to conduct four programmes with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. The first of his appearances took place on February 18 in Radio City Studio 8H, New York. It was from this concert that the Cockaigne Overture derives. A week later, on the 25th of the month, the Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin was set down.

The added value of the Sargent items rests in the fact that he never recorded either work commercially. Elgar described his Cockaigne Overture to his friend Jaeger as “cheerful and Londony - stout and steaky”. Despite Studio 8H’s boxy acoustic, Sargent provides an affectionate reading with plenty of infectious sweep. Listen to the way he adeptly negotiates the changing moods and tempos. On the one hand we are drawn into the hustle and bustle of city life, whilst on the other we experience the broad panoramas of the Malvern Hills in the dalliance of lovers in a park. There’s also real bite from the burnished brass in the military band.

It was the performance of the Violin Concerto that initially aroused my curiosity in this CD. Since 1932, Menuhin had a close relationship with this work, for it was that year, aged only 16, that he made his famous recording with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1966 he rerecorded it with Boult and the New Philharmonia, a less clean and less spontaneous reading. I had the good fortune to hear Menuhin live performing it in London, again with Boult, in the early 1970s. Whilst some of his expressive powers remained intact, his performance was marred by intonation problems, moments of abrasive tone and a tremulous bow arm. I was most interested to hear this 1945 version with Sargent, as it predates the technical problems that were to beset his playing significantly from the 1950s onwards. After all, this was not that long after that wonderful performance he gave of the Brahms Concerto with Boult for the BBC Home Service on 5 April 1943, in Studio1, Maida Vale, London (BBC Music Vol. VI, No. I).

In the 1945 collaboration with Sargent his bow arm draws a big sound and his intonation is, for the most part, good. The soloist is profiled very close-up in the sound picture, strangely more so in the opening movement, where there’s a certain lack of dynamic variance as a result. Sargent is a sympathetic collaborator, and directs a sure-footed account. In the slow movement one can hear why Menuhin was so admired for his communicative gifts. There are some exquisite moments, ruminative and wistful in their expression. It’s worth pointing out at this juncture that there are some cuts to accommodate the broadcast timings. These are confined to the second and third movements, with the latter being the biggest victim, where a whole six minutes has been excised. More precise details are given in Spahr’s notes. The finale is animated and vital, with some tender poetic moments in the extended accompanied cadenza.

These valuable historical audio documents receive the best possible restorations from Lani Spahr, who has also provided the excellent accompanying liner notes, which give some background and context to these recordings. As an Honorary Member of the Elgar Society, Spahr’s dedication and skill must be lauded as a true labour of love.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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