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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op 37 [23:41]
Falstaff, Symphonic Study for orchestra, Op 68 [35:13]
Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 14 & 15 October, 2019 (Falstaff); 16 & 17 December, 2019, Staatsoper, Berlin and Philharmonie, Berlin.
Texts and French & German translations included
DECCA 4850968 [58:58]

One of the most unexpected delights to have come out of the world of orchestral music in the last few years is the success of Daniel Barenboim’s Elgar from Berlin. The symphonies worked brilliantly, and if his Gerontius suffered a little from unexpected last-minute cast changes then the orchestral sound and Barenboim’s sense of scale still made it a success. So in one sense this should be the next instalment, but I was very surprised when I discovered he wanted to tackle these two works. More so even than the symphonies, they are perhaps the most quintessentially English of Elgar’s orchestral works, once you set aside the Pomp and Circumstance marches.

Of course I needn’t have worried, not least because Barenboim has already recorded Falstaff twice before, once in London for Columbia/Sony and there’s a DVD of him conducting it in Berlin at the Philharmonic’s 2014 Europakonzert, a performance also available in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. Falstaff needs a cheerleader like him: it’s still something of a rarity in concert halls, even in the English-speaking world, and any Elgarian should be thrilled that it has so respected and gifted an advocate in Barenboim.

His grasp of the works’ structure is, therefore, extremely impressive. He gets the pacing and the structure just right, something of central importance in a work as episodic as this, and he directs the narrative flow very convincingly. You can tell he is used to conducting the vast spans of Wagner and Strauss, and it’s very refreshing to hear Elgar conducted by someone with such expertise.

The orchestral playing is, naturally, absolutely top notch. The string sound is rich and dark, and not in the slightest bit “English”, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and if you know the work only from the performances of UK orchestras then the Staatskapelle’s tone will really make you sit up and take notice. The various solos are brilliantly done, capturing beautifully the fat knight’s laziness, rakishness and wistful nostalgia. The jollity of the Eastcheap scene feels a little leaden to me, but it’s made up for by some delightfully Mendelssohnian string playing in the Gadshill robbery. The coronation march builds with a sense of both bustle and majesty, and the death scene is handled beautifully. Furthermore, the recording picks up all the detail nicely, including the jingling of the coins in the robbery, and there is a lovely feeling of “olde England” atmosphere in Shallow’s orchard.

And yet… While there is so much to praise I felt it just a little lacking in heart. It is the cleanest, sleekest, most professional performance of Falstaff I could possible imagine, but is it maybe just a touch clinical? I wanted a bit more portamento at key moments, a bit more swoop in the big themes and, throughout, a bit more leaning into the phrase in a way that would give the music a bit more of a kick. It seems odd to praise a performance for being too perfect, but I missed that sense of warts-and-all grub that you get from the likes of Boult or Barbirolli, the performance that I’ve long turned to on my own shelves. Many listeners will love this Berlin performance: it’s a lot of fun to get driven around in an Audi; but some will long for the extra character of a Mini Cooper. You decide.

I actually found the orchestral tone to be more satisfying in the Sea Pictures, particularly the strings, which sound sparer and more transparent. The opening beam of light, for example, radiates warmth while also allowing you to hear through it, and the regular swell and ebb of the waves sounds really terrific throughout the cycle. The brass underpin key moments, as in “Sabbath morning at sea,” with understated grandeur, and the range of orchestral colour in “The Swimmer” is wonderful. Barenboim weaves every texture into a convincing whole, from the spiritual mysticism of “Sabbath morning” to the jaunty trot of “Where Corals Lie”, and there is a lovely sense of fulfilment at the cycle’s end.

Likewise, Elīna Garanča is a truly fantastic singer. There is a warmth to the bottom of her voice that is both welcoming and comforting in the “Sea Slumber Song”, and her “In Haven” sounds more than ever like a love song to Elgar’s wife, who wrote the words. It’s not just her natural vocal tone that makes her so special, but a beautifully resonant presence that seems to fit the music extremely well; exceptionally so when you remember that she isn’t a native Anglophone (and you would barely guess it, so good is her diction). She rises magnificently to the grandeur and vision of “The Swimmer”, embodying ever aspect with an opera-singer’s ability to inhabit a persona, and I came away from her performance feeling extremely satisfied. Like Callas in Tosca or Nilsson in Elektra, the ghost of Janet Baker hovers over anyone who records the Sea Pictures, but Garanča more than holds her own. Her voice is darker than that of Sarah Connolly, and more earthy than Baker’s, but I found it really wonderful, an important addition to the cycle’s discography.

So it’s two cheers from me: a surprisingly excellent Sea Pictures and a slightly clinical Falstaff. However, the third cheer should, surely, be for the fact that Elgarians have Barenboim on their side. The composer needs more advocates who don’t hail from Britain, and we should all be glad that he has a champion as skilful and influential as the one he has in Berlin. Will there be more, I wonder?

Hats off to the Decca engineers, by the way: both works were recorded across two venues, but you’d never guess from the seamless editing. And, if it’s important to you, it’s worth pointing out that the CD’s tracking in Falstaff is uncommonly generous, dividing the work into eleven tracks rather than the more usual six, making navigating the music, and following the story, a lot easier than most of its rivals.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

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