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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Hills of Dreamland - Orchestral Songs
Song Cycle, Op. 59 (1909)
Two Songs, Op.60 (1909/10, orch. 1912)
Pleading, Op. 48 (1908) [4.02]
Follow the Colours (1908, rev. for orchestra 1914) [6.38]
The King’s Way (1909) [4.28]
Complete incidental music to Grania and Diarmid [14.24]
11 Songs with Piano [37.00]
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Henk Neven (baritone), Nathalie de Montmollin (soprano), Barry Collett (piano), BBC Concert Orchestra / Barry Wordsworth
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum (orchestral); Turner Sims, Southampton (piano songs)
Sung texts included in booklet.
SOMM SOMMCD271-2 [53:30+37:00]

Discs of Elgar’s orchestral songs do not come around that often. But just two months before Somm recorded this disc in March 2017, Chandos put much of the same repertoire in the can – including the two orchestra-alone excerpts from Grania and Diarmid and released it sooner too. That recording aside there are scant few other options for Elgar’s orchestral songs apart from the ever popular Sea Songs. A Dutton disc, mis-leadingly titled John Ireland - Orchestral Songs and Miniatures includes Elgar's Follow the Colours and A War Song. The buried presence of the former has led to the performance of that new song on the current disc being mis-labelled as a “first recording”. Dutton takes that dubious honour although it should be noted that this new Somm disc includes a verse omitted by Dutton – more on this later.

So what of the actual value of these songs? To be blunt, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, they are small chips from a master’s block. This is curious, because except for a couple of early items, they nearly all date from the composer's high noon and creative maturity. The bulk were written (or orchestrated) between 1908 and 1914, during which time he also penned the two symphonies, the violin concerto, the Music-Makers and Falstaff as well as smaller-scaled masterpieces such as Sospiri and the Elegy for Strings. More curiously, given his genius with ‘lighter’ salon works from Salut d'Amour on, they have little of the melodic memorability or simple sentiment that marks out those slighter works too.

The exception to the time-frame mentioned above is the earliest song here ‘The Wind at Dawn’. The words are Elgar’s first setting of a poem by his soon-to-be wife Caroline Alice Roberts. As with Sea Pictures it is hard not to feel that Elgar was inspired more by love than the poetry. The song itself is rather fine and very effective – the words, as they are through much of this programme, rather weak. That being the case the responsibility is thrown onto the performers to make the most of moderate fare. It has to be said that Barry Wordsworth rises to the challenge splendidly, ably abetted by his long-time collaborators in the BBC Concert Orchestra who play with real swagger and flair. For some reason SOMM have used a different recording/production team than normal but the results in technical terms are very good too, with the Watford Colosseum providing exactly the right kind of rich bloom to the sound. The major plus and reason to consider this disc is the presence of mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge. Not that her colleague baritone Henk Neven is anything but good too, but simply because the majority of the other discs to be considered only feature male voices and when Elgar orchestrated them some at least were conceived for a female voice – Muriel Foster. One exception is another Dutton compendium disc, again with the BBC Concert Orchestra, this time with Martyn Brabbins and soprano Susan Gritton as soloist. Gritton sings well and sensitively but I find the extra richness of Rudge’s mezzo-soprano voice to suit this music even better. Recitals of Elgar songs with keyboard are more evenly spread between male and female singers.

Of the opening three songs from the Op.59 cycle the third one, ‘Twilight’, is the most impressive. Confusingly this is numbered ‘6’ but Elgar only wrote three – Nos. 3,5 & 6 – occupied as he was with the Violin Concerto. The downward turning melodic line imbues the song with the nostalgic regret which chimes so often in Elgar’s music. Henk Neven has a forthright, unaffected style of singing which suits the simplicity of utterance in these songs. I like Wordsworth’s slightly heavier tread than Davis gave the song on Chandos. Roderick Williams makes much more of the word-pointing in this and every song where the repertoire overlaps. I am not sure it is always to the song’s benefit since it can bring some archness to this unsophisticated lyric. That said, Williams’ voice is overall more flexible and controlled than Neven’s. For my taste, Neven has a slightly tremulous vibrato and can sound tight in the higher register. Williams who sings on both the Chandos and Dutton discs is easier in this regard.

On the new SOMM discs the four finest songs - by accident or design - are allotted to Rudge. These are the afore mentioned ‘Wind at Dawn’ together with ‘The Torch’, ‘The River’ and ‘Pleading’. Rudge also sings the song that was part of the Grania and Diarmid music: ‘They are Seven that pull the thread’. This last song is by some distance the best one presented here. In one of his many japes, Elgar himself provided the words for ‘The Torch’ and ‘The River’ which were published as a pair, as his Op.60. The words for ‘The River’ are, again, pretty dire: “...sternest barrier of our land, from thy bosom we drew life...”. But for whatever reason they draw music of some drama and Rudge has exactly the right kind of ardent-eyed delivery for this near-operatic song. In the latter, again Wordsworth is considerably broader than Davis and again to good effect and likewise Williams’ attempts to point every word and nuance over-eggs this rather banal text.

Quite often the mood of these songs is more of the ballad concert or salon rather than the concert hall. In that field there were several pre-eminent British composers; think of Eric Coates, Edward German, Haydn Wood and even Ivor Novello. The best of them challenge the melodic richness of Elgar and it is no insult to say that ‘Pleading’, in style, mood and lyric echoes those minor masters. Yet again Wordsworth and Rudge are substantially slower than Davis/Williams and they make a case for this song having an emotional weight that transcends the words. That said, Williams, with his flowing more conversational style, ties it more closely to the ballad tradition and I like his version too. Sadly, neither Williams, Rudge, Davis or Wordsworth can save either Follow the Colours or The King’s Way. The former has to be the worst piece by Elgar I know. Even Barry Collett in his excellent liner note for SOMM says, “...[its] militaristic patriotism, while touching a chord in the jingoistic fervour before the outbreak of the First World War, appeals little to modern sensibilities”. As mentioned, Dutton quietly excise one verse so you must buy this new disc to hear “What's in the wind now, what's toward? Who cares a bit, who cares a bit? Marching orders, we’re on the way, To settle it, to settle it”. The main pain of this song is its verse/refrain form which means you have to endure the awful extended chorus four times. Not much better – using words, again by – the now – Lady Elgar is The King's Way. Of minor interest is the way Elgar uses the trio melody from his recently composed Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 as the main tune. He skilfully reworks it but to little avail. “Allying it to such dreadful words does it no favours” is Collett's objective view.

The bathos of those songs is all the more apparent when the Grania and Diarmid excerpts follow straight on. The two orchestral excerpts are well known and often recorded. Wordsworth’s sure pacing and restrained emotion are a match for any. The song ‘They are Seven that pull the thread’ is less common. Jenny Miller, again on Chandos but with Bryden Thomson and the LPO is a sensitive singer but vocally less appealing than Rudge and again Wordsworth’s weightier tempo and more pensive approach pays real interpretative dividends. It is included by Gritton in her Dutton survey – excluding the two orchestral movements – but again her naturally lighter voice lessens the emotional impact of this powerful song (that Dutton disc is valuable for the rarer repertoire it includes by other composers).

This new disc is offered as a "twofer" with a thirty-seven minute recital of Elgar's songs for soprano and piano. Barry Collett provides the accomplished and sensitive accompaniments and Swiss soprano Nathalie de Montmollin sings with clear diction, with her non-English accent only very occasionally – and not disturbingly – apparent. As mentioned before, these songs in the original piano versions are more commonly available in the catalogue either as single composer collections or mixed recitals. For the former the two volumes of Elgar Songs from Channel Classics are the go-to reference but that said, there are some songs missing from those two discs with ‘The Mill Wheel Winter’ and ‘The Muleteer’s Serenade’, recorded here, marked as first recordings. On Channel the soprano songs were sung by Amanda Roocroft and I must admit I prefer both her sound and her style of singing to Montmollin. In essence she favours a simple and direct style which plays to the nature of these songs better than Montmollin’s more dramatic style and wider vibrato. I prefer Montmollin’s style and sound much more when she is not forcing the dynamic. This recital was recorded by SOM’'s trusty team of Siva Oke and Paul Arden-Taylor and it sounds typically fine but so does the discreetly sophisticated Channel Classics SA-CD.

SOMM’s presentation is its usual exemplary high quality. Good notes from Barry Collett and an extended discussion of Grania and Diarmid from Andrew Neill. Full texts in English only are included. The engineering across both discs is very fine although the competing SA-CD from Chandos is just a tad more opulent and natural sounding. The main reason for acquiring this set is the sustained excellence of Barry Wordsworth’s interpretations – his deeply felt and insightful performances lift this music often above where it might otherwise reside. Similarly, Kathryn Rudge’s singing is a consistent delight and the best versions of these orchestrated songs I have heard.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Jim Westhead

CD 1 [53.30]
Orchestral Songs – Song Cycle, Op. 59 (1909)
1. Oh, soft was the song** (No. 3) [2.00]
2. Was it some golden star?** (No. 5) [2.44]
3. Twilight** (No. 6) [2.50]
4. The Wind at Dawn* (1888, orch. 1912) [3.43]
5. The Pipes of Pan** (1900, orch. 1901) [3.46]
Two Songs, Op.60 (1909/10, orch. 1912):
6. The Torch* (No. 1) [3.16]
7. The River* (No. 2) [5.24]
8. Pleading, Op. 48* (1908) [4.02]
9. Follow the Colours: Marching Song for Soldiers** (1908, rev. for orchestra 1914) [6.38]
10. The King’s Way* (1909) [4.28]
Incidental Music to Grania and Diarmid (1901)
11. Incidental Music [3.38]
12. Funeral March [7.13]
13. Song: There are seven that pull the thread* [3.33]
Kathryn Rudge* (mezzo-soprano) & Henk Neven** (baritone)

CD 2 [37.00]
Elgar Society Bonus CD
Songs with Piano
1. Like to the Damask Rose [3.47]
2. The Shepherd’s Song [3.08]
3. Dry those fair, those crystal eyes [2.04]
4. The Mill Wheel: Winter† [2.27]
5. Muleteer’s Serenade† [2.18]
6. As I laye a-thynkynge [6.57]
7. Queen Mary’s Song [3.31]
8. The Torch [2.18]
9. The River [4.22]
10. In the Dawn [3.11]
11. Speak Music [2.52]
Nathalie de Montmollin (soprano) & Barry Collett (piano)

First recordings †

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