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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op 37 [22:02]
The Music Makers, Op 69 [38:23]
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2019, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK.
Texts included
ONXY CLASSICS 4206 [60:26]

Vasily Petrenko’s time on Merseyside has produced quite a discography. I followed his Shostakovich symphony cycle and also the series of Rachmaninov recordings he made, among which his pairing of The Isle of the Dead and the great Symphonic Dances was absolutely outstanding (review). More recently, he has turned his attention to Elgar. I haven’t heard any of those recordings but, looking back, I see that the disc that contains the ‘Enigma’ Variations and the magnificent, Straussian In the South was rather coolly received by Ralph Moore. Petrenko’s rendition of the First Symphony was reviewed by Ralph Moore, Michael Cookson and Brian Reinhart, all of whom reached slightly different conclusions. There’s also a recording of the Second Symphony (ONYX4165), which we don’t appear to have reviewed.

There seemed to me to be no clear consensus among my colleagues about Petrenko’s way with Elgar but my interest was piqued by this new release, for two reasons. One was the presence of Kathryn Rudge, a singer whom I’ve previously admired on a number of occasions, most recently in songs by Sir Hamilton Harty (review) and, even more relevantly in this present context, in a disc of orchestral songs by Elgar (review). The other reason why I was keen to hear this disc is that I was curious to hear how Petrenko would acquit himself in The Music Makers because, having taken part in quite a number of performances of it, I think this is one of the hardest of the composer’s works for a conductor to bring off. As is well known, the score is peppered with self-quotations; that is just one example of the air of introspection that hangs over the whole work. It’s also a score that abounds in mood changes and tempo modifications: a conductor must get all of these right if the performance is to succeed. Finally, there’s the issue of ensuring that the words of Alfred O’Shaughnessy’s poem are put over convincingly. It would be a kindness to say that the poem is of its time, yet it clearly struck a chord with Elgar. The score that he fashioned from them is, in my view, significantly underrated.

He was at the height of his powers when he composed Music Makers; among his major choral works, only The Spirit of England lay in the future. The orchestration of Music Makers is masterly, full of colour and incident. I’ve sung in most of Elgar’s major choral works and I think that the choral writing in Music Makers is arguably the most challenging of all. Under Vasily Petrenko’s direction, the RLPO plays the score very well indeed. Aided by a recording that is detailed and which has plenty of impact, the musicians bring out an abundance of orchestral detail. My one disappointment is that, by comparison with some other recordings I know, the organ part, an important element in the textures at several key points, doesn’t have the necessary presence; Sir Andrew Davis’s 2018 recording is much preferable in this respect (review).

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir sings accurately and I was impressed by the attention they pay to Elgar’s copious dynamic markings. However, I do have one or two reservations. I don’t think the balance between the vocal parts is always as good as I’d like. In particular, the female voices, the sopranos in particular, seem stronger than their male counterparts; I wonder if the choir suffers, like many UK choirs, from a shortage of male voices relative to the strength of the female sections. It seems to me that the BBC Symphony Chorus, on the aforementioned Andrew Davis recording, is rather better balanced as a unit; that’s true also of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, who give a sterling performance on a 2006 Naxos disc (review). I noted two or three instances where the tenor line wasn’t quite as prominent as I’d like – though elsewhere the tenors do well – and in an ideal world I’d like a firmer bass sound. That said, there’s a lot that the chorus does very well. They sing the ‘And therefore today is thrilling’ episode incisively and with commitment. This isn’t my favourite part of the work and the choir needs to be on the ball, as is the case here, if the music is to make its effect. In a very different vein, I greatly admire the sensitivity with which the choir sings ‘A breath of our inspiration’ – and Petrenko’s conducting of both that passage and the orchestral bars leading up to it displays no little feeling. The choir also makes a notable contribution to the closing minutes of the score (from ‘O men! It must ever be….’)

The selection of Kathryn Rudge to be the soloist on this Elgar disc from Liverpool was felicitous because she was born in the city. Her contribution to Music Makers is first rate. She may not have as individual a voice as, say, Dame Janet Baker or Dame Sarah Connolly, both of whom have made memorable recordings of the work, but she sings with feeling, lovely tone and great assurance. Her first solo (‘They had no vision amazing’) is beautifully voiced but even better things lie in store at ‘But on one man’s soul it hath broken’ (Tr. 10 1:18). Here, Elgar movingly quotes ‘Nimrod’ from the ‘Enigma’ Variations, undoubtedly recalling his great friend August Jaeger, who had died in 1909. Ms Rudge is touching in this passage. Sarah Connolly is somewhat more expressive on the Andrew Davis recording, but I like just as much Kathryn Rudge’s way with the music. Later on, she is imperious at ‘Great hail!’ and then, a few moments later, at ‘Bring us hither’, her singing is just as eloquent as Dame Sarah’s; indeed, I think Kathryn Rudge’s voice is the fuller and richer of the two in the higher-lying passages of this solo. The most memorable moment in the score occurs at ‘Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers, / And a singer who sings no more’. Excellent though she is, I don’t think that Kathryn Rudge makes the single word ‘Yea’ quite as heart-stoppingly moving as Sarah Connolly manages – though she comes close. When Elgar then tugs at our heart strings by quoting ‘Novissima hora est’ from Gerontius [Tr 10, 7:30] Rudge and Petrenko bring out just the right degree of poignancy, though I have to say that the same passage is even more special on the Connolly / Davis disc. I’d be very surprised indeed if anyone buying this disc was disappointed in any way by Kathryn Rudge’s contribution to Music Makers.
And what of Vasily Petrenko’s direction of the score? In general, he is very respectful of Elgar’s many tempo modifications. Once or twice I don’t think his choice of speeds is as shrewd or as idiomatic by comparison with Sir Andrew Davis, a seasoned Elgar interpreter. So, for example, I think Petrenko is too slow at ‘We in the ages lying’ – Elgar’s marking is Allegretto, after all. Shortly afterwards at ‘To the old of the new world’s worth’, his pacing sounds laboured compared to Davis. On the other hand, I was thoroughly convinced by Petrenko’s way with the long orchestral introduction, and he invests the stanza beginning at ‘With wonderful deathless ditties’ with fire and dash. I’ve already complimented the choir on their incisiveness at ‘And therefore today is thrilling’; they are surely inspired here by Petrenko, who makes the section urgent and exciting. Overall, despite one or two slight reservations, I think Vasily Petrenko makes a good job of this difficult score.

The coupling is Elgar’s 1899 song cycle, Sea Pictures. As in Music Makers, the poems set by Elgar couldn’t be described as great poetry but, once again, his music transforms the base metal of the words. I found a great deal to enjoy in this performance. As I’ve already commented, Kathryn Rudge may not have as distinctive a voice as Janet Baker or Sarah Connolly but she puts her own stamp on these songs. Throughout the set, I admired her clear diction and the warmth of her tone. She also invests the music with the right degree of expressiveness. A further cause for satisfaction is the way Vasily Petrenko not only supports her but also ensures that the orchestral contribution makes its proper mark.

That latter point is applicable, for example, in ‘Sea Slumber song’ where Petrenko guides the RLPO skilfully so that we hear the nocturnal sea-swells in the orchestra; throughout the song the details of Elgar’s orchestration are touched in very nicely. When it comes to ‘In Haven (Capri)’, the natural warmth of Kathryn Rudge’s voice is a decided asset, as is the delicacy with which the accompaniment is delivered. A very fine account of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ follows. I think Ms Rudge gets this just right; her singing at ‘The new sight, the new wondrous sight’ can fairly be described as elevated, and that’s even more the case when she sings ‘He shall assist me to look higher’, a moment of genuine Elgarian aspiration and grandeur. Indeed, her performance of the whole of this last stanza is very fine indeed, as is the orchestral contribution. ‘Where Corals Lie’ is the most famous of the songs and it receives a very good performance. Kathryn Rudge sings characterfully but without compromising the essential simplicity of the setting. The dimensions of that song are deliberately modest; by contrast ‘The Swimmer’ is a big song in every respect. Recently, I was disappointed in the way this song was delivered by Elīna Garanča and, particularly, by her conductor, Daniel Barenboim (review). There’s no such disappointment here, and for that Vasily Petrenko must take a good deal of credit. The first time I listened to this disc I wrote down the word “impetuous” to describe the opening. Petrenko plunges us headlong into the seascape and you can almost see the foaming waters in front of you. His approach is exciting and impassioned and I loved it. I also appreciated the way that he gives proper value to the passages where Elgar broadens the tempo yet he never slows down excessively in the way that Barenboim does; Barenboim’s expansiveness impedes the music’s flow. Kathryn Rudge takes her cue from Petrenko’s vital conducting and sings with fervour. Between them, soloist, conductor and orchestra give a full-blooded account of this final song.

This is an excellent account of Sea Pictures. Elgar collectors will be very familiar with Janet Baker’s famous 1965 recording with Sir John Barbirolli (review) and with Sarah Connolly’s 2014 reading with Sir Andrew Davis (review) – in which I think she surpasses her achievement in her earlier 2006 recording with Simon Wright (review). However, I’d urge anyone who loves these songs to make a space on their shelves for this version by Kathryn Rudge and Vasily Petrenko; it’s a fine all-round achievement.

Both works have been very well recorded by producer Andrew Cornall and an engineering team led by Philip Siney. The sound has plenty of presence and those who sometimes find that choirs have been too backwardly recorded in relation to the orchestra will be delighted to learn that this is not the case here: the Liverpool singers are in excellent balance with their orchestral colleagues. The authoritative notes are by Andrew Neill, former Chairman of the Elgar Society

Vasily Petrenko is due to take over at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021. With the RLPO currently unable to play due to the Covid-19 emergency I wonder whether this disc will be the end of his Elgar recordings on Merseyside, unless some other recordings are ‘in the can’. I hope that he will continue to play – and record – Elgar’s music because on the evidence of this disc he already has much to offer and his interpretations will surely mature further.

John Quinn

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