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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
The Music Makers, Op.69, Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy for contralto solo, chorus, and orchestra (1912) [36:47]
The Spirit of England, Op.80, Three poems by Laurence Binyon for tenor or soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra (1915–17) [25:05]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) Andrew Staples (tenor)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, Watford Colosseum. DSD.
Texts included
CHANDOS CHSA5215 SACD [61:56]

Sir Andrew Davis’s latest Elgar recording for Chandos consists of two deeply personal choral/orchestral works, neither of which is performed quite as often as they deserve. That said, the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has brought The Spirit of England into rather more prominence than hitherto and I hope it won’t now fade back into the background. I was intrigued to learn, via a short booklet note, that Sir Andrew had never conducted Spirit of England prior to the concert that immediately preceded this recording. He comments: “The widely held view that it is one of Elgar’s lesser works, a kind of dutiful contribution to the war effort, seems to me completely unjustified.” I’ve had the good fortune to sing in quite a few performances of this eloquent work over the last 30 years or so and I fully endorse his judgement. Chandos place The Music Makers first on the disc but the cover art has a Remembrance theme and there’s a poppy image on the disc itself. It’s also significant, surely, that the release of the disc coincides with the centenary of the Armistice. Indeed, most of my listening work on this disc has been done in the week leading up to November 11, Armistice day.

Back in 2014 I wrote an article about Spirit of England and I won’t repeat here the background to the work that I included there. I also discussed the recordings that had been made up to that point by Sir Alexander Gibson, Richard Hickox and David Lloyd-Jones. Since then a recording conducted by John Wilson (review) and a particularly notable one from Sir Mark Elder (review) have been issued. This new Chandos release differs from all its predecessor in one important respect. Elgar specified that the important solo part could be sung by either a soprano or a tenor. With one exception, all the previous recordings use the soprano option. The exception is David Lloyd-Jones who uses a tenor in the middle movement, ‘To Women’. Sir Andrew Davis is the first conductor on disc to use a tenor in all three movements. I’ve taken part in one or two performances that have followed the Lloyd-Jones approach to soloists but only once have I previously heard a tenor essay all three movements. That was at the 2014 Three Choirs Festival (review).

Here, the soloist is Andrew Staples. He has fine Elgar credentials. I heard him, both live and in the subsequently issued CD, singing the role of Gerontius for Daniel Barenboim (review). More recently, he made a fine impression in Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf at the 2018 Three Choirs Festival when, coincidentally, Sir Andrew Davis was on the rostrum (review). Listening to his performance on this present recording I could imagine that some people may find his tone a bit steely – his is not the most opulent of voices. That said, he sings with commendable clarity of both tone and diction and, as you might expect from someone who can sing Gerontius, the upper reaches of the solo part cause him no problems whatsoever; indeed, his top notes are thrilling. I’ve listened to this recording several times now and I’ll admit that I was dubious at first – I’m sure that was because I’m so accustomed to hearing a solo soprano voice – but Andrew Staples has won me round, Andrew Kennedy may bring a bit more roundness of tone to the middle movement on the Lloyd-Jones disc but I only mention that as a point of comparison, not to favour Kennedy, good though he is, over Staples.

I will admit that at certain points in the score I miss the vulnerability that a soprano can bring. In this connection I think, for instance, of the memorable moment in the first movement where the soloist sings ‘Endure, O earth’ However, Staples sings this and other comparable passages with great sensitivity – his interjections of ‘We will remember them’ in the third movement being a case in point. I think that throughout the work Andrew Staples gives a fine and convincing performance.

Sir Andrew Davis is as persuasive as any conductor of this score that I’ve heard on disc – he’s up there with Lloyd-Jones and Elder. He brings out the confidence and forward thrust in ‘The Fourth of August’ and then in ‘To Women’ the tenderness and the admiration for the fortitude of those left behind on the Home Front come out touchingly but with no hint of mawkish sentimentality. The third movement, ‘For the Fallen’ finds Elgar at a peak of eloquence. Interestingly, Elgar asked Binyon to add an extra stanza to his poem (‘They fought, they were terrible….’) There is one small but significant change to the word ordering at one point. Many will be familiar with the immortal line ‘They shall grow not old’: Elgar set this as ‘They shall not grow old’ – though in the Novello vocal score the poems are printed at the front and Binyon’s original word ordering is retained. I can only think that Elgar did this because he wanted the musical stress of his phrase to fall on the word ‘not’; his revised word ordering is followed here. To match the eloquence of the music, the present performance also rises to the heights, not least in the great final climactic passage, beginning at ‘As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust’ (tr 10 10:20); this is music that doesn’t so much tug at the heart strings as wrench them and Davis and his performers bring out all the majesty and emotion – hereabouts the organ underpins the texture superbly. I confess I approached this recording unsure of what my reaction would be to the use of a tenor but the merits of the performance are such that it’s now my top recommendation for Spirit of England.

The Music Makers was Elgar’s penultimate work for chorus and orchestra – only Spirit of England was to follow. The work was written for the 1912 Birmingham Festival though, as Andrew Neill points out n his excellent notes, Elgar first came across the poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy as early as 1874, the year after it was published. It’s a deeply introspective work and it was appropriate that when Sir Mark Elder’s very fine 2005 recording was issued the title given to the album was Elgar: A Self-Portrait (review). The self-portrait aspect of the score is underlined by the extent to which Elgar included musical quotations from several of his most significant works including ‘Enigma’ Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, both of his symphonies and the Violin Concerto. The booklet includes a very helpful schedule of these quotations, signposting the listener to where exactly in each track the quotes appear.

Davis leads a magnificent performance. As was the case in Spirit of England the BBC Symphony Chorus, obviously expertly prepared by Neil Ferris, are on very fine form. They need to be because I’m inclined to think, having sung it a few times, that Music Makers is Elgar’s trickiest choral work. The BBCSC surmount all its challenges though and they sing with great spirit and, in many passages, with great sensitivity. The orchestral part is no less challenging – Elgar’s imagination ran riot at times as, for instance, in the section beginning ‘We in the ages lying…’ which is colourful, inventive and shows him at the height of his powers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays with fire and finesse and the Chandos recording showcases them admirably.

As I mentioned, one notable feature of the score is the self-quotations. Elgar weaves these into the score seamlessly and they always seem absolutely “right”. For example, the motto theme of the First Symphony is ideal for the words ‘And out of the infinite morning / Intrepid you hear us cry.’ There are two quotations which are especially moving. Though many people have come to regard the great melody of ‘Nimrod’ from the ‘Enigma’ Variations as an elegy, Elgar had no such intent in mind. The variation depicted his great friend August Jaeger (1860-1909), who was very much alive when ‘Enigma’ was composed. By the time Music Makers was written, however, Jaeger had been dead for some three years. Surely, the introduction of the ‘Nimrod’ theme for the words ‘But on one man’s soul it hath broken, /A light that doth not depart;’ does memorialise Jaeger. Towards the end of the score when Elgar came to set the last line of O’Shaughnessy’s poem ‘And a singer who sings no more’ the melody that came to the forefront of his mind was that of ‘Novissima hora est’ in Gerontius. This is a moment that should cause the eyes to prickle and in this present performance it does. Notice, too, how skilfully Elgar interweaves the Gerontius material and the original theme heard right at the start of Music Makers: the two might have been made for each other.

This is Sarah Connolly’s second recording of Music Makers. She previously appeared in the 2006 Bournemouth performance conducted by Simon Wright for Naxos (review). I admired her contribution to that performance very much but I think her achievement for Davis is even greater. Her first solo, ‘Thy had no vision amazing’, sets one’s expectations high. Here is warm, rich tone married to highly expressive singing. In short, Sarah Connolly is ideally cast. She sings ‘Great hail!’ magnificently and shortly after that she offers ardent singing in the passage that begins ‘Bring us hither your sun and summers’. Just before the aforementioned Gerontius quote, her delivery of the single word ‘Yea’ is ideally poised. Can the singing of a solitary word be eloquent? Yes, indeed it can. Dame Sarah’s earlier recording is very fine and her voice was twelve years younger so, perhaps sounds a bit fresher. However, fast forward to 2018 and there’s even greater artistic maturity and an even more nuanced performance to be heard.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts Music Makers very well indeed. It’s not an easy score to bring off but he presents it as a fine and coherent work. O’Shaughnessy’s verses are of their time, shall we say, but Elgar works a kind of musical alchemy on them and the result is a strongly personal and very rewarding work. It’s magnificently performed here and, with opulent Chandos sound presenting the music-making in the best possible light, I think I would say that, as with The Spirit of England, this now becomes the prime recommendation for this important Elgar score.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson



 



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