The Lighter Elgar. No, that is not
the name of this new CD, but it is nominally the subject matter
of it and has been for a number of discs across the years.
The actual title belongs to an LP by Neville Marriner and the
Northern Sinfonia that first appeared in 1970 and is now available on EMI Classics. The
term “lighter” as popularly applied to Elgar seems
to encompass a number of works which the more perceptive Elgarian
would subdivide by categories such as “salon”, “ceremonial,” “early
mature” (see Froissart) and even a work like the Romance for
Bassoon, which while small, is not light.
The bassoon was an instrument that Elgar could
actually play and it is good to think that he did not totally
forget this instrument so comparatively bereft of repertoire.
As Op. 62 the Romance falls right between two of the composer’s
most significant works, the Violin Concerto and the Second
Symphony. While not as substantial as those two giants, it
demonstrates equally well both Elgar’s capacity for evocative
orchestration and his nostalgic or wistful tendencies. James
Judd is fully aware of this and treats the piece with the care
it deserves, although I found his tendency to accompany rather
perfunctorily took away from the overall impression. The playing
of Preman Tilson is quite good, however and he compares well
as soloist with Michael Chapman on the above-mentioned Northern
Sinfonia disc. As throughout much of this disc, the woodwinds
of the orchestra produce a wonderful sound.
At least as small and definitely lighter are
the three pieces May Song, Carissima and the Minuet.
Lest one think that all of Elgar’s concern with lighter music
occurred in his early days, the Minuet was written in
1901 and not orchestrated until 1928, while Carissima was
written in 1913 and is one of the earliest pieces, if not the
earliest pieces, created for recording purposes. Judd does
very well with this brevity. It demonstrates Elgar’s ability
to take a form and material that would be pleasant and nothing
more in the hands of another composer and imbue it with a degree
of emotion one would never have suspected. The conductor handles
this small work very well, indeed this is one of his strongest
performances here, although Marriner and Daniel Barenboim on
his old Columbia LP both got more out of it. Judd is more perfunctory in
the May Song, but his Minuet Op. 21 is the best
I have heard.
The two Chansons Op. 15 have always seemed
like salon music to most listeners, but Elgar thought enough
of them to orchestrate them a dozen years after their composition.
Perhaps Judd thinks that by stretching the note values he will
make them sound more important, but this produces a rather
plodding Chanson de Matin - not the type of morning
one might want to wake up to. His weighty style is better applied
to the Chanson de Nuit, which he rounds off beautifully.
Even earlier in order of composition is the Three Characteristic
Pieces Op. 10, which first appeared as a Suite in D in
1882-4 and was later arranged and orchestrated in 1899. The
Mazurka receives a good performance, but Judd does extremely
well with the other two pieces. He appreciates the underlying
humor of the Serenade Mauresque - the piece begins as
a typical example of 19th century Orientalism, but develops
quickly but imperceptibly into something that could only come
out of Worcester at the same period of time. Judd brings out
the foreshadowings (at 2:40) of the means by which Elgar would
evoke his past in so many works. Contrasts is exactly
that - an 18th century Gavotte and a then-contemporary
one, although the old part sounds more like Bach than Rameau.
Judd does well with this.
The Three Bavarian Dances are orchestrations
of three of the six choral/orchestral sections of From the
Bavarian Highlands Op.27. This work presented me with my
largest complaint against Judd’s conducting, the phrasing was
sloppy and the overall tempo too rushed. The orchestra acquits
itself well however and this is the big moment for the horns.
Finally, though it starts off the disc, is the overture Froissart,
a piece that is neither miniature nor light and indeed was
Elgar’s first substantial orchestral work. This is a work that
can sound too long for its material, but Judd has a good overall
conception of the piece and stresses those aspects that an
1890 listener would have found “modern”.
In all of the above music the New Zealand
Symphony Orchestra demonstrates its ability to produce an exciting
and varied sound. Especially impressive are the woodwind, which
excel the rest of the ensemble in both beauty of playing and
ability to follow their conductor. As mentioned above, the
horns are also impressive. This orchestra has a great future
in front of it. Unfortunately, the Michael Fowler Centre in
Wellington produces a rather blank sound which the woodwinds
can surmount, which the rest of the orchestra cannot. This
disc is the third that the orchestra and James Judd have recorded
of Elgar’s music and the conductor is doing great work for
some of the lesser-known works of Elgar. However, I cannot
give it a complete recommendation due to both the recording
and the conductor’s tendency to attenuate when he should accelerate
and vice versa.
For reviews of other Naxos releases of British composers
see the themed release page