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Elgar and his Peers. The Art of the Military Band
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance March No 2 in C Major, Op 35/2 (1901) (arr. C. Evans) [5:46]
Sir Thomas BEECHAM (1879-1961)
March (1947) [4:17]
Johann Sebastian BACH/ Sir Edward ELGAR
The Tower Chorales (1911): O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß [3:29]; O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden [1:31]
Sir Edward ELGAR
With Proud Thanksgiving (1920) (arr. Frank Winterbottom) [8:11]
B. Walton O’DONNELL (1887-1939)
Three Humoresques (1923) [11:24]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1872-1958)
Sea Songs (1923) [4:00]
Toccata Marziale (1924) [4:49]
Sir Edward ELGAR
Severn Suite (1930) (arr. Henry Geehl) [17:50]
So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone (Queen Alexandra’s Memorial Ode) (1932) (arr. Tom Higgins) [7:26]
Pomp and Circumstance March No 5 in C Major, Op 35/5 (1930) [5:47]
The Joyful Company of Singers
London Symphonic Concert Band /Tom Higgins
rec. September 2016, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London. DDD
English texts included
SOMM SOMMCD0170 [74:33]

I missed Crown Imperial, the debut CD by Tom Higgins and London Symphonic Concert Band (LSCB) (review). Apparently the Band was assembled for that recording and now they return with Elgar’s music forming the backbone of their programme. Over 40 musicians are listed in the booklet and I gather that membership of the ensemble is drawn widely from among the music profession. The disc contains several premiere recordings but I think I’m correct in saying that most if not all of these are the first recordings of the works concerned in their present arrangements.

The principal offering is Elgar’s Severn Suite. He wrote it for brass band. In fact it was a test piece for the 1931 National Brass Band Championship and it’s certainly a work that puts any band through its paces. Subsequently Elgar orchestrated the work and the publishers also requested an arrangement for military band. For that task Elgar turned to Henry Geehl. I’ve heard Elgar’s orchestral version several times but never, so far as I can recall, the military band arrangement. I must admit that I prefer the golden tones of a brass band in this music – I’ve always preferred the brass band version to the orchestration, effective though the latter is. It seems to me that Mr Geehl did his work skilfully though as a matter of personal taste the brilliance of brass band cornets in particular brings out more in the music at times than does the timbre of massed reed instruments as heard in the military band. (The LSCB includes 10 clarinets of different varieties and four saxophones.) That said, I like the sonorities that the LSCB produces in ‘The Cathedral’ and in the outer sections of ‘In The Commandery’. In the opening movement, ‘Worcester Cathedral’, and in the ‘Coda’ the military band brings a somewhat different brilliance to the music as compared with the sound of a brass band. One detail that I definitely miss is the exciting cornet flourishes towards the end of ‘Coda’ which don’t cut through to quite the same degree when played, as here, on clarinet. This, however, is an enjoyable and effective rendition of the work.

The two Pomp and Circumstance marches work well in this format. The version of No 2 was made by one C. Evans, presumably quite some time ago. Tom Higgins and his band give it a lively performance. They invest No 5 with suitable swagger; this arrangement is by Higgins himself. The two arrangements for brass of Bach chorales are, frankly, of fairly minor interest though I should imagine they sounded rather splendid when played from the top of the tower of Worcester Cathedral during Three Choirs Festivals; it was for that purpose that Elgar designed the arrangements.

The band is joined by The Joyful Company of Singers for two choral items, both of which have interesting histories. With Proud Thanksgiving was written for the Dedication of the Cenotaph in London in November 1920 though in the end Elgar’s piece was not played on that occasion. There have been two previous recordings of With Proud Thanksgiving, one conducted by Douglas Bostock (review) and a more recent one conducted by John Wilson and issued by SOMM. Both of these use the orchestral version that Elgar himself made in 1921. However, for the Cenotaph ceremony, which was to be an open-air event with a military band to hand, Elgar enlisted the help of Frank Winterbottom, the Professor of Instrumentation at the Royal School of Military Music, Kneller Hall. He scored Elgar’s work for military band and it’s this version that here receives its first recording.

To fulfil the commission Elgar turned to the last movement, ‘For the Fallen’, from his great wartime choral work, The Spirit of England. When I reviewed the John Wilson recording of With Proud Thanksgiving I described it as “less of an arrangement and more an act of butchery” and I see no reason to change that view. Elgar cut out about half of ‘For the Fallen’. The excisions included almost all of the instrumental introduction; the whole of the allegro section (cues 10-19 in the vocal score) and the last part of the “They shall grow not old” section (between cues 22 and 25). In addition he excised the crucial solo soprano role and he also modified – not for the better – some of the remaining music. The result is, I’m afraid, nothing more than the maimed torso of one of his most eloquent compositions.

By comparison with ‘For the Fallen’ I don’t think one can regard With Proud Thanksgiving as more than a curiosity. However, the present performance sheds light on it in a way that the John Wilson performance could not because the military band scoring has its own fascination. In particular, the piece opens with an imposing alteration of drum rolls and minor-key chords played by the full band. These put me in mind of the gaunt grandeur of one or two of Berlioz’s big ceremonial scores. Elsewhere the sonorities of the band give a similarly imposing and open-air ceremonial feel to the music. So I think that in performing the Winterbottom scoring Tom Higgins has brought us much closer to Elgar’s original conception than the composer’s own orchestration does. The latter is a concert hall piece and markedly inferior to ‘For the Fallen’ but the military band version evokes the majestic occasion for which Elgar originally envisioned With Proud Thanksgiving. As such this recording will be of great interest to Elgar aficionados and it must now be the preferred version of With Proud Thanksgiving.
 
So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone is also a work composed for an outdoor ceremony; in this case the unveiling by King George V in 1932 of the Memorial in London to his late mother, Queen Alexandra, widow of King Edward VII, who had died in 1925. Elgar was asked to write this piece in his capacity as Master of the King’s Musick; the text was furnished by the Poet Laureate, John Masefield. The piece is one of Elgar’s last completed works; indeed, it may be the very last work that he completed. Masefield’s words are worthy and of their time but they called forth from Elgar some music of genuine feeling and nobility. In his booklet notes Andrew Neill reminds us of Elgar’s enduring admiration for Edward VII. In all probability, therefore, So Many True Princesses was a last act of service to an admired monarch and his consort. I wonder also if it was his last backward glance at the Edwardian era in which he had flourished. The piece is founded upon a noble melody and it is shot through with melancholy dignity.

The piece was originally scored for military band by the Senior Director of Music, Brigade of Guards, Captain Andrew Harris and I infer that it was this scoring that was used in 1932, with the composer conducting. It seems that the score and parts were then lost but Elgar’s short score survived and from this Anthony Payne created an orchestral version in 2002. It has been recorded by David Lloyd-Jones (review). The Lloyd-Jones performance is a good one but I think there are reasons to prefer the newcomer. In a comment in the booklet Tom Higgins says “For a work that was designed to be played at a public occasion, it comes close to the feel of salon music.” Respectfully, I disagree and the reason I disagree is because of the way Higgins performs the music. He gives it more space than Lloyd-Jones does (Lloyd-Jones takes 6:13, which is more than a minute quicker than Higgins). Paradoxically, of the two conductors it’s Lloyd-Jones, if anyone, who raises the spectre of salon music – though not significantly. Higgins, on the other hand, invests his performance with more gravitas, partly through better-judged pacing and partly through the more ceremonial scoring of his military band version. I should hasten to add that Anthony Payne’s orchestration sounds authentically Elgarian; it’s just that a band sounds better in this context. Where Lloyd-Jones does have the upper hand, I think, is in the matter of choral contribution. The BBC Singers, who sing for him, have a greater weight of tone whereas though The Joyful Company of Singers do well the sound of the soprano and tenor sections are a bit more prominent than their altos and basses, a comment that applies also to With Proud Thanksgiving. So Many True Princesses is not a major Elgar work but it’s by no means insignificant and it deserves to be better known.

I must admit that I’ve never heard an original work by Sir Thomas Beecham, only his arrangements of music by other composers. His March is a bright and breezy affair – no surprises there. It’s equally unsurprising that the music has something of a twinkle in its eye. Tom Higgins and the LSCB give it a suitably spirited performance. The Three Humoresques by Bertram Walton O’Donnell all bear titles that refer to Jane Austen novels. They’re attractive and well-composed if fairly slight pieces. VW’s Sea Songs was originally intended as part of his English Folk Songs Suite (1923) but was published separately. It’s a sprightly quick march performed here with gusto. The Toccata Marziale is a more serious work but that doesn’t mean it’s not ebullient. It’s rhythmically sophisticated too and Higgins and his players bring energy to their performance of it.

This disc is valuable, especially for the welcome light it sheds on a less familiar side of Elgar’s output. The music is well performed by the London Symphonic Concert Band. The performances have been well recorded by engineer Ben Connellan and producer Siva Oke. The expert notes are by Andrew Neill, former Chairman of the Elgar Society.

John Quinn

 

 




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