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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Music Makers, Op.69 [36.42]
The Spirit of England, Op.80 [25.05]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Watford Colosseum, 2018
Texts included with French and German translations

I should perhaps begin this review by expressing my amazement that nobody before seems to have considered the idea of coupling Elgar’s last two major choral works on a single disc. Indeed, and even more amazingly, the current ArkivMusic listings feature only three recordings of The Spirit of England, two of which were released in the last three years, and all differently coupled. It appears that The Music Makers is better served, but of the nine recordings listed, three are of the same famous Sir Adrian Boult performance from the 1960s and one is an abridged version from 78s conducted by the composer himself. Of the participants in this new Chandos recording, both Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Andrew Davis have already set down readings for other labels. There are other reasons too for welcoming this new release; The Spirit of England, described by the composer as written for “tenor or soprano solo” (note the apparently preferred order), is here given for the first time on disc with a tenor soloist throughout; an earlier Dutton release did furnish a tenor solo for the second movement, but with a soprano in the outer ones. Elgar certainly employed a tenor soloist for that movement in his first London performance, although the part is quite stressful for a male voice elsewhere in the score with high notes flung about with reckless abandon.

I must admit that I am unconvinced that the piece works better with a tenor soloist, whatever Elgar’s own preferences may have been. Or it seems, at least, that the type of voice that Elgar may have imagined is not readily available. The sheer volume of projection that is required is quite phenomenal in places (it is clear here that Andrew Staples is assisted by sympathetic microphone placement) and the heroic sort of tenor that the composer obviously anticipated (heavier than Gerontius, for example) will always find the placement of the higher notes to be a problem. Consider the difficulties of the tenor solo parts in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Schoenberg’s Gürrelieder, for example, which defeat all but the most indefatigable exponents. A large-voiced soprano, on the other hand, can handle the vocal lines with greater assurance; Teresa Cahill makes a real meal of them in her recording with Sir Alexander Gibson, also available on Chandos (although much less appropriately coupled with the Coronation Ode) and best of all is the heartfelt Dame Felicity Lott with Richard Hickox on EMI (which appears to have vanished from the catalogues altogether although there are still second-hand copies around).

Some years ago John Quinn on this site compared Lott and Cahill in a comprehensive review of the various recordings available at the time, preferring Lott to Cahill both because of her less overtly emotional approach but also because he felt that Gibson’s slower tempi were too solemn by comparison with the more flowing Hickox. I am not so sure; I find that, for example, the funereal opening of the final movement For the Fallen works better at a slightly slower speed, with the clarinet soloist able to breathe greater passion into the glorious flowing melody that forms the centrepiece of the orchestral introduction [track 12, 0.46]. It has to be admitted that the recorded sound of the old Chandos CD is very resonant indeed, introducing an element of blurring into the texture at the startling soprano entry on the words “Death august and royal”. But then with Davis’s speeds in this new recording the startling element is even more played down, and the use of a tenor voice achieves greater crispness but less sheer impact [track 12, 2.37]. There are other moments too when Davis underplays the drama – the sudden sfp attack in the strings in the second movement at the words “and not a stab of steel is pressed home” [track 11, 2.23] lacks the visceral punch that is surely needs. And the sudden eruption of the Demons’ music from Gerontius in the first movement needs a greater sense of shock; the resolution of the music at the words “Endure, O earth” is properly consoling but too easily achieved [track 10, 4.15].

I recall that a couple of years ago Davis achieved wonders in conveying a sense of symphonic unity in Bliss’s disparate tribute to the dead of the First World War in his Chandos recording of Morning Heroes (review), and I presume his intention here too was to provide a sense of musical unity; but the employment of Binyon’s words throughout already lends Elgar the coherence that the Bliss work can strive to achieve, and Elgar clearly wanted some of his effects in the word-setting to pluck at the listener’s sensibilities. His alteration of the word order in Binyon’s famous line “They shall grow not old” clearly indicates his desire for direct comprehension and communication (he was not to know at the time that the original inversion of the words would attain iconic status). This amendment, presumably made with Binyon’s consent if not his approval, was similarly (and presumably intentionally) adopted by Peter Jackson for his recent documentary on the First World War; the alteration occasioned protestations from some quarters.

In his comparative review in 2014 John Quinn preferred the David Lloyd-Jones version on Dutton to its rivals; I have not heard this, but have to admit that for sheer gusto either Hickox or Gibson comes closer to the sheer violence of the score than Davis does here. On the other hand Lloyd-Jones has a collection of really interesting couplings of music by other composers written in memory of the First World War including superlative and otherwise almost unknown pieces by Gurney, Kelly and Elkington (and the disc is still shown as available from the company’s website).

With The Music Makers it is clear again that one of Davis’s principal concerns is to reinforce the sense of symphonic unity in what can be a dangerously disjointed score. Notoriously, Elgar indulges himself in a plethora of self-quotation throughout the length of the music to illustrate the theme of O’Shaughnessy’s poem that the composers and performers of music are the real evolutionary force behind all of creation: an odd position for a poet to adopt, but one which clearly struck a responsive chord in Elgar. Some conductors go out of their way to highlight the self-quotations, and indeed the booklet here lists them in some detail (although it is not comprehensive, a number of citations from the symphonies going unremarked). Davis on the other hand takes great care to blend them into the surrounding texture, with the result that a number are almost reduced to inaudibility: the quotation from the Violin Concerto at the words “in our dreaming, and our singing” [track 7, 2.34] is very recessed indeed, and the reference to Rule Britannia during the rumbustious writing at “we fashion an empire’s glory” [track 3, 0.26] is totally overwhelmed (oddly enough, the Marsellaise during the same passage comes across more clearly). Dame Sarah Connolly is predictably superb in the mezzo-soprano solos, especially the vocal setting of Nimrod; but she sounds slightly stressed by the high G in “Great hail we cry to the comers” [track 9, 0.17] particularly when compared to Dame Janet Baker in the old Sir Adrian Boult recording. Mezzos must be heartily sick of the way that Dame Janet’s example is invariably trotted out for comparison in recordings of Elgar, usually to the detriment of her more modern rivals; but then, in her prime she was incomparable, and the best that anyone else can do is to equal her performances in this sort of music. In this new recording the richness of the sound that Davis achieves is superior to the more straightforward Boult, and the choral singing is a decided cut above the sometimes ragged declamation of their 1960s rivals; but all the same that EMI reading is really something that is unlikely ever to be surpassed, despite the fact that none of the CD pressings is ideally coupled.

Meawhile, for those who want these two masterpieces on a single disc (and that is a very sensible idea), there is simply no competition. Those who remain to be convinced that these really are great scores, or who hold that O’Shaughnessy’s text for The Music Makers consists of a “perennial plethora of positively putrid purported poetry” (as the alliterating David Hurwitz described it when reviewing the Naxos CD) will find Davis’s symphonic approach illuminating and refreshing. Those looking for an alternative viewpoint on The Spirit of England may find the use of a tenor soloist more effective than I am afraid I did. The recorded sound is clear and the resonance is not too overwhelming. The booklet note gives us the complete texts in English, with French and German as well in the comprehensive notes on the music.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ John Quinn

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