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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Partsongs from the Bavarian Highlands

Max Hanft (piano), Radoslav Szulc, Julita Smoleń (violins)  Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Howard Arman
rec. Herkulessaal der Residenz Munich 26 October 2019 (From the Bavarian Highlands - live performance), BR Studio Munich 2 October 2020 and 21-24 September 2020
BR KLASSIK 900522 [65:37]

This intelligently planned, superbly performed survey of Elgar's music for mixed choir and piano is very welcome. Not that this is especially rare in the catalogue but the level of execution and the quality of the production is absolutely first rate, showing these relatively minor works by Elgar in the best possible light. The added interest is hearing this music performed by a top-notch European choir. Of the several other discs of similar content, all that I know are sung by British ensembles - both professional and amateur - and although they too sing very well, it is valuable to hear this music sung from a different performing tradition and training.

In terms of the chosen repertoire, all such discs tend to overlap with some works and omit or include others. What I enjoyed about this particular programme is that it surveys nearly all of Elgar's creative life from the charming if salonesque Spanish Serenade of 1891 through to the Weary Wind of the West which Elgar reworked just four years before his death. This reflects not only Elgar's development as a composer but how the implicit financial imperatives of his life in part drove his compositions. Hence the early works were written with half an eye at least on their 'sale-ability'. Allied to a remarkable melodic gift and empathy for texts and a genre that others might consider 'slight', this means that the authentic Elgarian spirit can be heard in many of these works. The six songs From the Bavarian Highlands that open this disc embody that perfectly. Dating from 1895, this set - simultaneously conceived for piano or orchestral accompaniment - pre-date the majority of works on which Elgar's enduring fame rests. Almost uniquely amongst Elgar's works, these song affect folk-song although Elgar was keen to tell his publisher that "the music is my own" although the words were supplied by his wife in the style of German volkslieder. These pieces appear in various guises from full orchestral and violin and piano arrangements as well as the version for chorus and orchestra. Given their instant appeal, melodic attractiveness and vocal practicality, it is surprising they do not turn up in these type of anthology discs more often. The world premiere recording dates from as late as 1974 when they were recorded by Christopher Robinson with the choir of Worcester Cathedral - this latterly has appeared on Chandos. They did appear again until a 1987 Conifer disc from Simon Halsey conducting the CBSO chorus. As an aside - why Hyperion chose not to include these in their "Complete Choral Songs" two-disc set in 1987 is a mystery. The LSO chorus under Vernon Handley also did not include this work a decade later on their disc again for Hyperion. Likewise, Paul Spicer with his elite Finzi singers omitted the set for their 1993 recording. Robinson recorded the work for a second time for Naxos in 2008 with the Cambridge University Chamber Choir.

Halsey's CBSO chorus sound like a larger choral group than the current Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks - who from the pictures in the accompanying booklet look to be around 45 members. The Birimingham choir sing with an energy that suits this style of faux-folksong. Likewise their pianist, David Markham, is recorded with more presence than Max Hanft on this new disc and plays with more overt dynamism. But where this new version scores easily over all the other performances I have heard, is the sheer unified quality and blend of the singing. This really is exceptionally fine choral work. No single voice dominates and the matched tone across the entire vocal range is a joy to hear. Yes, perhaps in this cycle they could affect a lustier approach but there is real sensitivity and supple subtlety in their singing. There is an affection and tenderness in this cycle and an absence of emotional shadows that is relatively rare in Elgar's substantial works and these qualities are very well presented here. As indeed they are in the closely contemporary Two Partsongs Op 26 and the Spanish Serenade Op 23. All three of these works are set for women's voices alone accompanied by piano and two violins. The obligato violin parts are not that demanding - again written with one eye at the commercial/amateur market I am sure - but they are played with panache and skill here. Conductor Howard Arman provides the liner note (in German and English only) and I agree with him that these charming works are best heard in this original 'chamber' form. Elgar did arrange them for orchestral accompaniment later but somehow the more modest scale of the original fits the ambition of the settings better.

With the later works it is interesting to see how Elgar turned to the less demanding form of part-song writing in the midst of his more substantial works. The Five Partsongs from the Greek Anthology are found in most of these recorded collections. These were written for men's voices alone and by opus number sit between the Coronation Ode and the Introduction and Allegro - although Elgar was also working on The Apostles and The Kingdom around this time too. They receive an especially fine performance here - to my ear, the European choral tradition results in mens' voices having a focus and precision that few British equivalent choirs can match. So the LSO gentlemen for Vernon Handley lack nothing in terms of attack or energy but the upper lines especially sound simply strained. Of course it could be argued that the drama implicit in lines such as "Yea, cast me from heights of the mountains ... let thunderbolts strike me" need a certain wildness but it will be for the individual listener where wildness ends and technical limitation starts. Personally, in this style of music which is not meant to be 'grand', I prefer the skill and precision of this German choir every time. Important to stress that Howard Arman is a sensitive and astute interpreter of Elgar and that throughout the disc he shows a real understanding of Elgarian ebb and flow. Paul Spicer's Finzi Singers do have that level of skill and technique too but they are a significantly smaller group which allows individual voices to appear and even they lack the absolute precision of their German counterparts.

And so it proves time and again wherever direct performance comparisons can be made. Go song of mine is an absolute highlight of Elgar's writing in this genre and again appears in most of these recorded collections. The opus number is telling - Op 57 sandwiches this work between the Symphony No 1 and the Violin Concerto and right next to the deeply felt but often overlooked Elegy for Strings. The performance here seems to me judged to perfection both in terms of the scale and the manner of the execution. For some unknown reason, Christopher Robinson included this work on his disc of (otherwise) sacred music by Elgar for Naxos. His singers were the Choir of St. John's College Cambridge and his is an appealing performance benefitting from youthful sounding voices although the manner of the singing does lean toward the choir stalls rather than the concert hall. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks are more consciously expressive, almost theatrical with the tenor line in particular having a tonal quality I prefer to the 'bleached' sound of the British Cathedral tradition. Arman in his liner quotes Elgar's rebuttal of Ernest Newman's critique of the Menuhin recording of the violin concerto which Newman felt lacked "English reserve and austerity". To which Elgar retorted; "Austerity be damned! I am not an austere man am I?"

Passionate restraint might be a more appropriate description and this is a quality that caps the recital with another of Elgar's finest works in the genre - the 1925 setting of words by Walter de la Mare - The Prince of Sleep. In the liner Arman references Michael Kennedy's description of the work being "in the rapt manner [Elgar] reserved for special moments of vision". This was Elgar's first essay in the form since his wife's death with all the well-known impact that had on his creative vision. Direct comparison between Handley and Spicer is very telling - they almost sound like different pieces with Spicer's individual voices clearly defined. Arman is quicker than either and this does translate into an expressive urgency that creates a very different mood from Handley's raptly gentle reading. Possibly this is one occasion where I find Handley's tenderness to trump the sheer precision of the German choir.

I cannot claim encyclopaedic knowledge of recordings of this repertoire - there are recitals by the youthful and excellent Rudolfus Choir under Ralph Allwood and the nearly complete Choral Songs on Hyperion from Donald Hunt and the choir of Worcester Cathedral that I do not know at all for example. But of the single disc collections I do know I have to say I find this new recital to be the best sung and best presented. BR Klassik's production values are first rate with very good sound throughout. This is all the more impressive given that the Songs from the Bavarian Highlands were recorded live - there is no discernible audience noise or applause - with the remainder studio recordings. The acoustic is consistently warm and supportive of the voices. Howard Arman proves to be wholly empathetic to Elgar's sometimes elusive style and the success of this disc is in no small part due to his sympathetic and sensitive direction allied to the superb quality of the singing. His liner note is interesting and astute and the booklet includes full texts in the original English only.

Perhaps in the final judgement Elgar's works for chorus as recorded here work within the predefined parameters of the genre. Whilst there are examples - as mentioned - of extraordinary beauty, he did not seek to push those boundaries or expectations in the way that he did with other genres of British music. Given the success of this recording, would it be too much to hope that these performers might turn their attention to those composers and works that did seek to explore new potential within the form. I suspect their Bax, Vaughan Williams or Britten, to name but three, could be revelatory.

Nick Barnard

From the Bavarian Highlands - Six Choral Songs with piano accompaniment Op 27 (1895) [23:13]
Two Part Songs (The Snow, Fly Singing Bird) for Women's voices, 2 violins and piano Op 26 (1894) [7:50]
Five Partsongs from the Greek Anthology for Men's voices Op 45 (1902) [7:14]
Go, Song of Mine for mixed choir Op 57 (1909) [4:08]
As Torrents in Summer (from The Saga of King Olaf) arranged for Women's voices and piano Op 30 (1896) [2:12]
Spanish Serenade for Women's voices, 2 violins and piano Op 23 (1891) [3:43]
The Reveille for Men's voices and piano Op 54 (1907) 6:02]
They are at Rest - Elegy for Mixed choir (1909) [3:33]
Weary Wind of the West for Women's voices and piano (1902/30) [3:15]
The Prince of Sleep for Mixed Choir (1925) [4:27]

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