introduction to Elgar was an Ace of Clubs LP in the cupboard
of the school music room. It contained the present performances
of the Cello Concerto, Cockaigne and the second Wand
of Youth Suite. Until now I had never heard them again
since leaving school. Nevertheless they remained pretty clearly
in my mind and at least once, when reviewing a particularly
indulgent performance of the Concerto, I have suggested going
back to this one as a return to Elgarian basics. It would
be embarrassing, wouldn’t it, if my nostalgia trip proved
it is not so. Anthony Pini’s slightly wiry - as recorded
- but committed tone and the generally forward-moving approach
proved much as I remembered them. However, I find that those
in search of Elgarian basics but reluctant to forsake stereo
sound may be quite happy with the Tortelier/Boult - maybe
also the earlier Tortelier/Sargent or the later Tortelier/Groves
but I don’t know these. Here are the timings, together with
those of a famous recording which changed our interpretative
views for at least a generation.
you can see, between Pini/van Beinum and Tortelier/Boult
it’s only in the first movement that there is any appreciable
difference. Boult had previously (1945) recorded this work
with Casals. On that occasion he loyally supported an interpretation
which was probably not the one he would have given on his
own initiative. Yet Casals must have made an enormous impression
on him and almost thirty years later there are touches of
a similar waywardness to the phrasing in this first movement,
from the orchestra at least as much as from the soloist.
Still, compared with the Pini/van Beinum, you are listening
to the same music – a graciously-flowing moderato, just very
slightly more inflected with Tortelier/Boult. Tortelier has
perhaps a greater range of tone to support his approach,
though it is unfair to make too much of this when the fine
analogue stereo recording obviously catches any tonal variation
much better. You may think that Du Pré/Barbirolli only add
a few seconds more, but somehow the music seems quite different,
a deeply-measured slow movement.
you hear the expressiveness with which both Pini and Tortelier
shape the slow movement and the self-communing portions of
the finale you may wonder how on earth the music can go more
slowly still. They seem to have all the time in the world.
Frequently, Du Pré lingers on a single note, drawing it out
before she moves on. With Barbirolli clearly in agreement,
she presents a greater range of tempi. The third movement
may be basically slower, but at a point about two-thirds
of the way through it is actually forging ahead faster than
the others. In the finale Du Pré’s quicker sections are actually
pretty fast. It is a deeply moving performance, but I would
say that in order to appreciate it fully you have to have
a “basic Elgar” performance in your head to start with. This
performance has cast such a spell on subsequent interpreters
that they have risked taking it as “normal” and then exaggerating
further. So back to basics please, whether it be Pini or
Cockaigne gets a swift, exuberant reading,
but van Beinum understands perfectly when and how to relax,
maybe just for a bar or so. It is
another performance which applies the Elgarian first principles
we know from the composer’s own recordings. If a Boult version
exists from the 1940s or 1950s - I’m not aware of one - it
would probably sound much like this. By 1972 he was in his
final phase when he often seemed to be recreating, in a golden
glow of memory, the world he remembered as a young man. He
takes about a minute-and-a-half longer but this tells us
little since his tempi are very flexible, in the old-world
manner. His shaping of the opening bars speaks to us of half
a century’s communing with this music. I love it, but this
is another case where, in order to appreciate it fully, we
need to keep a “basic Elgar” version as a comparison. I am
sure Boult would have been horrified at the suggestion that
he was offering a personalized slant on the music, since
this was never his intention, but I think that in some of
these late recordings he was doing so.
of Youth suites, in which the mature master reworked
themes from teenage compositions, are not easy to interpret.
They can seem merely high quality light music, but in the
right hands they can evoke a lost world of starry-eyed
Victorian childhood. This world can be discovered by reading
such works as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse.
What today’s computer whiz-kid makes of these I can’t imagine,
but this world can also be recreated in all its delicate
yet real emotions in a sensitive performance of Elgar’s
childhood-inspired works, especially these two suites.
need not surprise us that Boult understands all this perfectly,
for he was born in Victorian England. Van Beinum’s short
spell as conductor-in-chief of the LPO was in the thick of
the post-war reconstruction period and the England he knew
was a very different one. And yet he penetrates Elgar’s mixture
of nostalgia and bright-eyed wonder with absolute perfection.
Finer performances of these exquisite miniatures can hardly
be imagined, though I do think that Boult’s are equally fine.
of Youth record was issued in 1968. It was one of the
first products of his “Indian summer” period with EMI.
The conductor was just that little bit younger compared
with the disc of overtures and there is no suggestion that
his former vitality was dimmed while his poetic response
to the music was superfine. I simply couldn’t choose between
van Beinum and Boult in these suites. Perhaps there are
individual pieces where I might slightly prefer one or
the other but overall I can only remain lost in admiration.
The LPO was a more brilliant instrument in 1949, astoundingly
so in Wild Bears where van Beinum obtains articulation
worthy of his master Mengelberg. But Boult sees that nothing
is seriously amiss in 1968 and his version can be enjoyed
in fine analogue stereo.
there is a Boult recording of the brief Elegy I don’t
know it. Indeed, I don’t remember having heard the piece
before. Van Beinum draws the most exquisite soft playing
from his strings – a perfect performance.
recordings are somewhat variable. The second Wand of Youth suite
is brilliant if a little glassy and has virtually no surface
noise, suggesting that it might have been derived from an
LP pressing. The first suite and the Elegy have much
more recessed sound with a heavy swish that threatens to
drown some of the more intimate passages. The overture and
the concerto come somewhere in between. In view of this,
a general recommendation is difficult, but those interested
in the history of Elgar on record will be rewarded with very
fine, totally idiomatic “basic Elgar”.
of “basic Elgar”, might EMI take a look at the performances
by George Weldon and Lawrance Collingwood recorded in the
late fifties and early sixties?