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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op 37 [23:41]
Falstaff, Symphonic Study for orchestra, Op 68 [35:13]
Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 14 & 15 October, 2019 (Falstaff) and 16 & 17 December, 2019, Staatsoper, Berlin and Philharmonie, Berlin.
Texts and French & German translations included
DECCA 4850968 [58:58]

Daniel Barenboim here continues his exploration for Decca of the major works of Elgar with the Staatskapelle Berlin. He’s already recorded the First Symphony (00028947893530) and the Second Symphony (review). Both of those performances are fascinating – and superbly played - if controversial at times. The same is true of his recording of The Dream of Gerontius (review). Now he has turned his attention to Sea Pictures and the masterly Symphonic Study Falstaff.

The present performances were captured at concerts which Barenboim and the orchestra gave in Berlin. Each work was part of a programme played first in the orchestra’s home, the Staatsoper, and repeated the following evening in the Philharmonie. My Seen and Heard colleague, Mark Berry had the good fortune to attend one performance of each of these programmes. He was in the audience at the Philharmonie when Falstaff was played on 15 October 2019 (review) and he was present for the performance of Sea Pictures at the Staatsoper on 16 December (review).

Barenboim recorded a good number of Elgar works with the London Philharmonic back in the 1970s for CBS/Sony, including Sea Pictures with Yvonne Minton, though I never heard that performance. I remember reading Mark Berry’s review of the concert that included Sea Pictures and I was mildly surprised at the choice of soloist. This would not seem to be natural territory for the Latvian mezzo, Elīna Garanča. I associate her more with roles such as Octavian; thank goodness her memorable portrayal of that role has been preserved on film (review). When it comes to Sea Pictures, British singers such as Dame Janet Baker and Dame Sarah Connolly have provided touchstone performances on disc but I greatly welcome the fact that a non-British singer of Garanča’s distinction should take them up. Having listened to the recording a few times, though, I think the results are a bit mixed.

‘Sea Slumber Song’ goes well. Garanča sings tenderly and Barenboim obtains exquisite playing from the orchestra. Garanča’s words are not always ideally clear, here or elsewhere in the songs, but the sound she makes is gorgeous. Turn, though, to Janet Baker’s 1965 recording with the LSO and Sir John Barbirolli, long the benchmark version, and you hear something much more instinctive. Not only is Baker’s enunciation of the words clearer but she is much more inside the words, I feel, and Barbirolli’s accompaniment is every bit as understanding as Barenboim’s. At this point I think it’s worth saying that an anglophone singer will always have an advantage in these songs. The poems are not great poetry and I shouldn’t think they are easy for any singer for whom English is not her first language.

‘In Haven (Capri)’ is delicately sung but I like even more Baker’s gentle, reassuring way with the text and the vocal line. One point of detail struck me in the accompaniment: at the start of the third stanza (‘Kiss my lips, and softly say’) Elgar has the vocal line doubled by the first violins for the only time in the piece. You can hear the effect from Barenboim but Barbirolli brings out the violins just that little bit more and that gets my vote. ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ is a big song. There’s a lot to admire in Garanča’s delivery of it but she seems to me to try a little too hard in the first two stanzas. The third stanza is much better in this respect; indeed, the delivery is excellent That’s also true of the fourth verse; here, I love the way Garanča eases into ‘Creator on creation’ and then expands the phrase wonderfully. Then ‘He shall assist me to look higher’ is delivered with refulgent tone and the whole of that concluding stanza is opulently done. The snag is that Baker offers even more. Her delivery of ‘He shall assist me to look higher’ is exalted in a way that her Latvian rival can’t match; it is, in fact, an eye-prickling moment. I admired the way Garanča ends this song, but Baker moves me.

In ‘Where Corals Lie’ I relished Garanča’s lovely tone and expressive singing while the Staatskapelle Berlin display real finesse. The other big song in the set is ‘The Swimmer’ and I’m afraid Garanča and Barenboim try to make it too big. The respective timings are telling: the Garanča performance plays for 7:06 but Baker and Barbirolli take 6:04. The fault, I believe, lies with Barenboim who is too inclined to make a meal of broader passages. Barbirolli doesn’t underplay these episodes but he maintains an overall urgency that is in keeping not just with the music but with the spirit of the poem; it is he who more vividly paints an aural picture of a turbulent seascape. Eventually, for the final stanza (O, brave white horses), Barenboim gets the necessary momentum but by then it’s too late. Barbirolli surges forward from this point on and Baker’s dramatic singing, especially at ‘I would ride as never man has ridden’, sweeps all before it. For all her vocal splendour Garanča can’t match Baker’s sheer fervour.

There’s a good deal to enjoy in this Garanča / Barenboim version of Sea Pictures and it’s a very interesting performance but, ultimately, the hegemony of Sarah Connolly and, especially, Janet Baker is not threatened.

By coincidence, Sir John Barbirolli provides my comparator for Barenboim’s reading of Falstaff. That’s because Barbirolli’s EMI recording, made with the Hallé in London’s Kingsway Hall in June 1964 was my first exposure to this work. I’ve heard a number of fine recordings since then but Barbirolli’s red-blooded, warm and characterful reading has always seemed rather special.

I said when discussing the last of the Sea Pictures that the respective timings tell you a lot. In the case of Falstaff, however, that’s not really so. Barbirolli’s recording plays for 34:24 but in fact it’s Barenboim’s, which plays for 35:13 that often sounds the swifter. Barenboim’s conducting is somewhat lighter on its feet. We hear that right away; the start of the work is pretty sprightly in his hands as Elgar sketches in musical pen portraits of Sir John and of Prince Hal. Barbirolli is a touch more deliberate; with him you experience the nobilmente side of Hal, to be sure, but he’s not quite as agile as Barenboim.

When the action moves to Eastcheap, Barenboim and his orchestra convey the bustle and colour of that part of London. Once again, Barbirolli is just a fraction more deliberate but he gives us a ripe account of the music. At the start of the Gadshill section, Barenboim’s performance is superb; he vividly etches in the nocturnal ambience and then portrays the antics of Falstaff and his associates. Hereabouts, the playing of the Berlin orchestra is wonderfully pointed. The bassoon solo depicting the Fat Knight (6:12) is corpulent and a bit tipsy, though the Hallé player is even more characterful. I love the subtle sonorities that Barenboim conjures up as he and the Staatskapelle Berlin put Falstaff to sleep at the end of the episode at The Boar’s Head. The first Dream Interlude is beautifully done by the Berliners; the solo violin and viola are especially winning.

Then Falstaff is off to London to witness Prince Hal’s coronation – and, he is sure, his own preferment. The second half of the Ride to London is really dashing and flamboyant in Barenboim’s hands – those thrilling, swashbuckling horn figures really cut through. Mind you, Barbirolli, though a tiny bit steadier, is just as exciting and vivid at this point. His recording doesn’t offer sound that is as subtle as the new Decca recording but in passages like this the Hallé brass are thrilling.

Falstaff arrives in time to witness the new king’s procession and Barenboim ensures this passage is full of swagger and flamboyance, especially at 2:23 where we hear the magnificent panoply of Hal’s theme, now regal rather than princely. The repudiation of Falstaff by Hal is a poignant moment and the way Elgar’s portrayal of Falstaff’s hurt and rejection is handled by Barenboim is fully a match for Barbirolli’s deeply felt version. In the last few minutes of the piece the Berlin orchestra plays with marvellous sensitivity. This episode is just one example in this piece of the way in which insightful conducting, playing of finesse, and expert engineering combine to make the listener aware of all the detailed, subtle strands of Elgar’s music. Falstaff’s demise is delivered with great sensitivity.

Falstaff is one of Elgar’s greatest achievements, both as a composer and as an orchestrator, and this superb performance by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin does it proud. Incidentally, I must applaud Decca’s decision to divide the performance into 11 tracks. It’s a complex score to follow, especially if one if not familiar with it, and this track division is a huge help to listeners.

Daniel Barenboim’s Elgar is never dull. He thinks deeply about the music and he cares deeply about it as well. Moreover, he has at his disposal an aristocrat among orchestras, which is a huge benefit in these richly-hued scores. I have some reservations about the performance of Sea Pictures but Falstaff is a fine achievement and Elgar enthusiasts should hasten to hear it. I hope Daniel Barenboim will continue to record Elgar. A new recording of the Violin Concerto or the ‘Enigma’ Variations would be most welcome, but what would really set my pulse racing would be the prospect of In the South from this team.

John Quinn

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