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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op.37 [24.12]
In moonlight (1904) [2.54]
Pleading, Op.48/1 [3.01]
Oh, soft was the song, Op.59/1 [2.29]
Speak, music!, Op.41/2 [3.16]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Four poems by Fredegond Shove (1925) [14.12]
Four last songs (1958) [10.48]
Claire-Louise Lucas (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan Darborough (piano)
rec. St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, 2002
CLAUDIO CB5258-2 [ 60.55]

It is indeed startling in this day and age to receive a CD which proclaims on the cover that it contains a première recording of a work by Elgar, even if the work itself is well known and it is only the scoring that is novel. But unfortunately even this limited claim has to be disallowed. Elgar’s own version of Sea Pictures for voice and piano, prepared for performances which he himself gave as accompanist to Clara Butt, was already recorded for BIS as far back as 1975 by Birgit Finnilä and Geoffrey Parsons. The recording here was made in 2002, and since then the same arrangement has been recorded by Konrad Jarnot with Reinild Mees (Channel Classics SACD, 2008), Amanda Pitt with David Owen Norris (Avie, 2007) and Sarah Rose Taylor with Nigel Potts (MSR, 2015) to cite only those currently listed as available on Archiv. In fact this CD appears to be a reissue of the original 2002 disc, but the sleeve notes and copyright information remain unchanged. I cannot find any trace, however, of an earlier release.

Mind you, I wonder sometimes about Elgar’s sense of taste when I read that at some performances with piano Clara Butt sang these songs while dressed as a mermaid. And I cannot think that the piano accompaniment could ever begin to challenge the exquisite scoring of Elgar’s orchestration. When we think of Sea Pictures nowadays it is inevitably in the context of Dame Janet Baker’s 1965 recording conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, and the heavy-laden orchestral weight with which the latter delivers the middle section of ‘Sea’s slumber song’ cannot begin to be conveyed by any pianist no matter how sensitive or accomplished. In this opening song of the cycle Claire-Louise Lucas manages a still sense of rapture which recalls Dame Janet, but her husband Jonathan Darborough can do little to match that atmosphere. ‘In haven’ and ‘Where corals lie’, the second and fourth songs, with their strophic construction, inevitably suggest the realm of the Victorian drawing-room ballad; and on the other hand, the third and fifth of the songs sound simply underpowered. None of this is the fault of singer or pianist; it is simply a matter of the medium being wrong. The booklet notes by Jonathan Darborough emphasise the fact that “the piano writing is idiomatic” and more than a “mere orchestral transcription”, but nevertheless the results are comprehensively overshadowed by the original instrumental score and the closing bars of ‘The swimmer’ sound very conventional indeed.

The other Elgar songs on this disc were originally conceived for voice and piano, and gain thereby. There again, ‘In moonlight’ (track 6) originated as a transcription of the viola solo in Elgar’s overture In the South, and the application of words by Shelley came as something of an afterthought. Elgar himself orchestrated ‘Pleading’ (track 7), but the original piano accompaniment sounds much more satisfactory than in Sea Pictures. The performance of ‘Speak, music!’ (track 9), too, has a delightful sense of delicacy.

The first two of Vaughan Williams’s settings of poems by his relative Fredegond Shove are, as the booklet notes, “almost completely neglected” – but the opening ‘Motion and stillness’ (track 10) is a real gem which is presumably overlooked purely because of its short duration. Unkind critics have suggested that Vaughan Williams only set Shove’s poetry because she was his wife’s niece, but ‘The new ghost’ certainly sparked a rapt response from the composer and enjoyed a considerable reputation in contemporary literary circles. Nobody has ever matched Ian Partridge’s ecstatic delivery of the text in his recording, and Claire-Louise Lucas makes surprisingly little of the phrase “The spirit trembled, and sprang up”; yet elsewhere her disembodied tone is most effective. It is difficult to go far astray with a beautiful song like this, and her depiction of ‘The water mill’ has the right sense of disingenuous naivety (track 13). The Four last songs, a posthumous assembly of items originally intended for two distinct but uncompleted cycles, have recently been orchestrated by Anthony Payne (giving them a whole new dimension) but sound well in their original piano versions; here the opening of ‘Procris’ (track 14) has a poised atmosphere of enchantment, although the heightened modulations of ‘Menelaus’ (which suggest the milieu of movements in the composer’s contemporary Hodie) could have been more strongly emphasised here.

Those who are allergic to such things will welcome the lack of vibrato in Claire-Louise Lucas’s voice, but in the more impassioned sections of ‘Sabbath morning at sea’ (track 3) the results come perilously close to the sound of a boy treble rather than the expectations aroused by the description of her voice as a mezzo-soprano. The balance between voice and piano is excellent, but the general acoustic seems rather dry for a church and the piano surprisingly un-resonant for a Steinway. The sound is better suited to the Vaughan Williams songs than the more romantic Elgar items. The booklet commendably includes the full texts (no translations) as well as a two-page introduction by the pianist which could have been more forthcoming on the origins of the poems themselves. We do not know much nowadays about such writers as Arthur Salmon and Gilbert Parker, let alone Fredegond Shove.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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