The Longed for Light - Elgar’s Music in Wartime
Polonia (1915) [13:20]
Carillon for speaker and orchestra (1914) [8:27]
Sospiri (1914) [4:52]
Une Voix dans le Désert for speaker, soprano and orchestra (1915) [11:05]
Carissima (1914) [3:52]
Le Drapeau Belge for speaker and orchestra (1917) [3:27]
The Sanguine Fan, ballet music (1917) [17:59]
Sursum Corda (1894) [8:39]
Simon Callow (speaker); Susan Gritton (soprano)
BBC Concert Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. Watford Colosseum, 13-15 February 2012
English texts included
SOMM SOMMCD247 [75:10]
This Somm disc usefully gathers together a number of pieces composed by Elgar during the First World War. One or two of these, such as Sursum Corda, don’t quite fit that bill and neither does Carissima which, although written in 1914, pre-dates the conflict; it’s a peacetime work. No matter, each in its different ways - Sursum Corda noble and ceremonial and Carissima an innocent little charmer - is well worth hearing, especially when it is as well played as here. Incidentally, Carissima merits a significant footnote in Elgar lore; its first performance took place not in a concert hall but in the recording studio on 21 January 1914 when it became the first among many of his own pieces commercially recorded by Elgar in a long and fruitful relationship with HMV.
There are three understandable absentees from this collection of Elgar’s wartime music. One is The Fringes of the Fleet, which SOMM have already recorded (review). Another is The Starlight Express, which would have been far too substantial to include here and which, in any case, has recently been served superbly by Sir Andrew Davis (review). One can’t help feeling that Sir Edward may have undertaken that project as light relief during the dark days of the war. The third is The Spirit of England. Again, that work would have been too long to include on this programme. I hope that the forthcoming centenary of the outbreak of the Great War will quicken interest in this moving work, which I regard as one of Elgar’s finest choral works; too little known, even now, it is, arguably, his hidden masterpiece. Though the works has been well served by David Lloyd-Jones’s Dutton recording (review), I live in hope of a recording from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé.
SOMM’s programme is dominated by Elgar’s three settings for speaker and orchestra of poems by the Belgian, Emile Cammaerts (1878-1953). The first of these was Carillon. This was written in late 1914 and struck an immediate chord with the British public, among whom there was great sympathy for the plight of ‘gallant little Belgium’. If Cammaerts’ verses strike us today as somewhat ‘purple’ one should remember that they are very much of their time and that they were penned by a man whose country was being ravaged by war. Ian Lace’s comment about the style of Simon Callow’s narrations in his review of this disc occasioned some interesting Message Board comments by our colleague, Nick Barnard. Unlike Nick, I have not heard the earlier versions of Elgar’s three Cammaerts scores in which Richard Pascoe was the narrator. It has been interesting to listen recently to Elgar’s own 1915 recording of Carillon, newly transferred on Music & Arts, on which the narrator was Henry Ainley review. His way with the words, though perhaps a little less colourful than Callow’s, seems to buttress Nick Barnard’s approval of Callow’s style and I have to say that, even before hearing Ainley, I found myself convinced by Callow’s declamation of the text. Actors, by definition, have to adapt, chameleon-like and I think it’s relevant to point out that Simon Callow adopts a much less rhetorical approach in narrating The Starlight Express for Sir Andrew Davis (review) and I liked his contribution to that recording very much.
Carillon is essentially a rousing patriotic rallying cry. Une Voix dans le Désert is very different in tone, a statement that applies both to Cammaerts’ words and to the way in which Elgar set them to music. By 1915 the war was perceived very differently. It was no longer a glorious campaign which, it was hoped, would be over fairly quickly; rather Britain and her allies were becoming resigned to a long haul - and mounting casualties. Much of Une Voix dans le Désert is subdued, even dark in tone and Simon Callow adapts his style of delivery to suit and, once again, is convincing. In the middle of the work comes an extended soprano solo. This is quite touching and Susan Gritton’s tone falls pleasingly on the ear. Unfortunately, as I’ve found before with this artist, her words aren’t very clear but since the words themselves aren’t exactly gilt-edged in quality perhaps one shouldn’t regret that on this occasion.
Elgar’s final Cammaerts setting was Le Drapeau Belge. By the time of this composition in 1917 the mood had definitely changed, as Andrew Neill points out in his notes. It was not so much that the British had tired of the plight of the Belgians but more that there were many other priorities in the nation’s collective mind as the war - and the slaughter - ground on. Consequently, this work failed to catch the popular imagination and, to be honest, it fails to engage my sympathies either. It’s something of a tub-thumping piece and despite the best efforts of the performers here it does little for me.
Polonia, however, is a different matter. This was written for a Polish Benefit Concert in London in 1915 and into his score Elgar wove some Polish musical motifs, including a couple of traditional Polish tunes and fragments from pieces by Paderewski and Chopin. Andrew Neill’s booklet note is outstandingly helpful here in identifying all the themes in the piece, including those by Elgar himself, and detailing precisely at what timing during the performance each occurs. With such a thematic mélange and given the occasion for which the piece was composed one might be forgiven for expecting something that’s rather empty and tub-thumping. Not so. I suspect one reason that the piece works so well is that Elgar shrewdly chose Polish material that chimed very well with his own style. That’s especially true of the melody ‘With the smoke of fires’, first heard at 1:30. This sounds positively Elgarian. Even if the very end of the piece is somewhat grandiose this is a far from negligible score and much more than a pièce d’occasion. John Wilson does it extremely well. Incidentally, Elgar thought sufficiently highly of the piece that he recorded it himself in 1919, though this is an abridged version - it plays for 8:20; it is included in Music & Art’s set of Elgar’s acoustic recordings. (review).
The other sizeable piece on this disc was written in war time but, like The Starlight Express,is far removed from the horrors - or patriotism - of war, though it was written for a war benefit event. The Sanguine Fan has a mythical plot concerning lovers and Greek gods. I wouldn’t say the score is Elgar at his strongest - but, then, the plot isn’t desperately inspiring - however, much of the music is charming and graceful and it’s a pity that after Elgar recorded a brief extract in 1920 it remained in total neglect until Sir Adrian Boult revived it in 1974 and made the first recording of the complete score. In June 1978 this was the last music that Sir Adrian conducted in public when, unannounced, he conducted a performance for the London Festival Ballet at the Coliseum Theatre after which, without any fuss or announcement, he gave no further public performances. The score is a very good example of the lighter side of Elgar, as expertly crafted as any of his more profound works. John Wilson has a good feel for it and directs a performance that is affectionate and sprightly.
This is a rewarding disc, giving us opportunities to hear some Elgar scores that rarely see the light of day. John Wilson is in evident sympathy with the music and secures consistently fine playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra. The recorded sound is very good. The documentation is outstanding. The texts are included - though you won’t need them to follow Simon Callow’s speech, so clear is his diction - and there’s a marvellous, authoritative note from Andrew Neill. No Elgar fan will want to miss this disc. Incidentally, anyone wishing to explore the story of Elgar’s wartime music in more detail should consult the volume edited by Lewis Foreman, Oh, My Horses! Elgar and the Great War (2001) (review).
No Elgar fan will want to miss this disc.
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