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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Black Knight - cantata for chorus and orchestra (1893) [36:07]
Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands for chorus and orchestra, Op.27 (1895) [25:03]
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1995, All Saints' Church, Tooting, London
CHANDOS CHAN10946X [61:24]

This is a straightforward reissue of the same coupling on CHAN 9436, and Chandos have quite rightly undertaken it in memory of Richard Hickox who died in November 2008 – he was only 60 and his death deprived British music of one of its foremost ambassadors. I have many of his recordings, and will never forget attending his concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

In Victorian Britain, there was a strong amateur/semi-professional performing tradition of cantatas, oratorios and choral songs. This was particularly noticeable in cathedral cities and Elgar’s Worcester was no exception. It is hardly surprising then, that he should aim to make his mark in this sphere.

The Black Knight, a setting of a translation by Longfellow of a melodramatic German original, is Elgar’s earliest cantata, preceding Gerontius by 8-10 years and the well-known part song The Snow, by two years. The orchestra has a prominent part, indeed Elgar claimed that it was more a choral symphony than cantata, and in fact there are several purely orchestra sections, including a delightful dance episode in the third section which is eventually taken up by the chorus but then becomes largely orchestral, with the chorus interrupting in short, syncopated phrases. It is really very memorable.

The clearest foreshadowing of the Elgar to come is, I think, at the very end of the work where the King’s son and daughter die, when at the words “he beholds his children die” we hear the opening phrase of Nimrod. This is followed shortly after at “take me to”, by a striding, upward theme which reminds me powerfully of In the South. The last line of the poem begins with the word “Roses”, which is sung to a short phrase that tugs my memory; perhaps it appears in the later religious cantatas.

The work had a first performance in Worcester with Elgar himself conducting; it was a success locally, as was one in Wolverhampton in 1895, but a later London performance in the same year received a poor review.

The CD continues with the charming Scenes from the Bavaria Highlands, which Elgar composed three years after The Black Knight. Alice and he had been on holiday to Germany in 1894 and had enjoyed a Bavarian tradition of part-songs with orchestral accompaniment. She wrote six poems in the spirit of the places they had visited and Elgar was able to set them, as part songs but accompanied, at first by piano and then orchestrated. They are delightful pieces, very easy on the ear and beautifully performed.

In summary, like its original issue this disk is a necessity if, as an Elgarian you do not already have recordings of these works. This is especially so here, because Chandos have given the orchestral and choral forces a recording of splendid impact in a generous but not overwhelming acoustic, and the performers respond vividly.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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