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Elgar’s Sea Pictures - A Survey
by Ralph Moore

As its title implies, the unity of Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures derives from five poets’ literal and metaphorical depiction of the sea. It is quite frequently observed that these texts are “inferior poetry”, a criticism also made of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. While I will happily defend the quality of Cardinal Newman’s verse, I am less inclined to champion Elgar’s choice of poems here, especially as he sometimes follows the unwitting example of Handel – who had the excuse of English not being his mother tongue – by ignoring the natural stresses on words in favour of maintaining a strong melodic line, which can sometimes produce an awkward effect. Nonetheless, with the exception of his wife, Alice - an intelligent and cultivated woman - the poets he favoured were essentially 19C Romantics with some literary reputation and success. By far the best-known of them is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the author of the words to the third song, "Sabbath Morning at Sea", was a celebrated poet in her own right. I wonder, too, whether, the religious content, both implied and overt, of the third and fifth poems acts as a deterrent to modern critics averse to such pious sentiments, but to balance that, a strong, Romantic, quasi-pagan attachment to Nature – “the Mother mild” – runs throughout, while Alice Elgar’s poem is merely a simple little paean to the enduring quality of love and the final poem surely echoes the despair of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in the line “God surely loved us a little then”. Three of the songs are gentle, two – the third and fifth – grand and even tempestuous. The sea variously seems to reflect the Divine Nature, in that it is sometimes nurturing and consolatory but at other times stern and even vindictive - the God of the Old Testament. While nobody would claim that any of the poems are literary masterpieces, those of us used to encountering the downright risible libretti with which so many operatic composers were burdened can attest to the transformative capability of music to redeem mediocre or even inadequate texts – especially when the performers are as adept as the composer in transmuting mediocre material into great art – and that is what a fine performance of these songs does.

The cycle is Elgar’s most successful venture into song. He composed on a grand scale for a large orchestra, even including an organ and a tam-tam in the last song, but also devising some very delicate scoring for Alice Elgar’s miniature verses, “In Haven (Capri)” - which had in fact been written for piano two years earlier - and similarly employing the harp and woodwind very sparingly in “Where Corals Lie”. While Elgar does not go so far as to employ Wagnerian leitmotifs, snatches of melody in one song echo those in another, lending the cycle a musical unity in addition to its thematic coherence. The cumulative mood of the cycle represents the paradoxical relationship between humanity and the sea: a curious admixture of awe, adoration, fear and defiance.

Sea Pictures was first performed in an arrangement for contralto and orchestra in Norwich in 1899. The composer conducted and the singer was the formidable contralto Dame Clara Butt, whose booming voice and commanding, six-foot-tall presence must have made quite an impact, especially as she was, according to the composer, “dressed as a mermaid”. She had the exceptional extended vocal range required to sing this cycle and had the breath control to cope with the demands of the last song, in which the singer finds that there is barely room between phrases to draw breath. Most of the singers who have since recorded the work have been mezzo-sopranos; only the first three, earliest recordings here feature singers designated as contraltos. The true contralto in the Clara Butt mould seems virtually to have disappeared with the lamentably early deaths of Kathleen Ferrier at 41 in 1953 and Gladys Ripley at 47 in 1954, who both succumbed to cancer, and the retirement of Constance Shacklock in the 60’s; it is now virtually extinct. Perhaps the last British singer of that voice type to perform the cycle was the superb Welsh artist Helen Watts but unfortunately she does not appear to have left a recording. Ferrier sang the songs under Barbirolli but I have not encountered any recording of her doing so and apparently she experienced difficulty with higher-flying phrases.

I have confined myself in this survey to post-war recordings sung in English by female singers, with the exception of baritone Roderick Williams’ 2009 account. Most are studio-made but three are live performances: two under Barbirolli – who conducted the work more than anyone else – and Elīna Garanča’s recent performance with Barenboim. I have discounted Dame Janet Baker’s second version made late in her career, insofar as both she and her conductor, Vernon Handley, may be heard to greater advantage in their earlier recordings. Inevitably the preponderance of recordings is made by British – or at least English-speaking – artists; only recently have performers from other backgrounds taken it into their repertoire. The eighteen recordings below encompass, I think, the best of the catalogue, although there will inevitably be omissions.

The Recordings
Gladys Ripley (contralto) 1946, EMI (mono)
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon

This is obviously a historical recording but the surface swish and crackle apart, it is perfectly listenable, with only a little distortion at loud points and some inescapable astringency in the violins. Gladys Ripley was a true contralto with a fast vibrato and a round, fluty tone which falls easily on the ear. Her low notes are secure and tenorial. Her diction is perfectly clear, as long as you don’t mid the rather precious light rolling of every “r” which was standard in sung English at that time. I am sure that there is nothing about the singing and playing here which would not have seemed authentic and pleasing to Elgar himself. The voice is quite closely recorded but orchestral details are audible and well-balanced, so, for example the pizzicato violins in the second song emerge cleanly. Ripley brings appropriate gravity and a nice sense of line and legato to the noble middle song. She is rather “correct” and restrained at the climaxes but this is lovely singing and her top G on “burning” is excellent, even if the final top A is a bit thin and tentative. “Where corals lie” is disconcertingly fast and tripping, however – another way to do it, I suppose, rather than being objectively “wrong” – it’s certainly upbeat and Weldon slows down expressively for “Yes, press my eyelids close”. The final song is similarly urgent and actually rather gripping. This holds much more than archival interest – but see below…

Gladys Ripley (contralto) 1954, Somm; Pristine (mono)
London Symphony Orchestra/George Weldon

This was the remake of the previous recording with a different orchestra and is in superior mono sound. Ripley’s contralto sounds deeper and more burnished here, she is more unbuttoned in manner and her top notes are fuller, while Weldon’s direction is considerably more relaxed and intense; I wonder whether the exigencies of recording on 78 harried him first time around? Otherwise, its virtues are predictably very similar to the earlier version but this is sonically far superior and preferable, especially in Pristine’s superb transfer and XR remastering. The organ at the conclusion really makes an impact. Otherwise, in the Somm edition there is still a bit of scratch in the sound, so go for Pristine.

Constance Shacklock (contralto) 1958 live, The Barbirolli Society (mono)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

This is a live broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. Not many contraltos feel able to copy Dame Clara Butt’s example and tackle these songs but Constance Shacklock was, alongside fellow contralto near-contemporaries Gladys Ripley and Kathleen Ferrier, one who could. She had a stately contralto of depth and amplitude with the range to encompass the wide tessitura of the cycle and the listener will experience that pleasant shock of recognition of a true contralto the moment she opens her mouth and sings out thrillingly. Unfortunately, the primitive radio sound means that I can recommend this only to those habituated to what is essentially historical sound, especially as the singer is quite distanced from the microphone – only that permits you hear how well her resonant voice filled that big space. Hers is the voice which most closely resembles and rivals Janet Baker’s for richness of tone and expression. Despite the heft of her voice she copes admirably with the fast music of the last song and her last top note is a whopper. My only slight reservation is that a hint of flatness sometimes creeps into her higher notes. Her diction and inflection of text are exemplary and it goes without saying that Barbirolli’s accompaniment could not be better. If you are an admirer of the conductor and a voice maven like me you will tolerate the sonic limitations of this vintage account. (You might also consider the investment in this Barbirolli Society disc further justified by its pairing with Moeran’s Serenade, Delius’ Song of Summer and Vaughan Williams’ famous Fantasia.)

Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) 1965, EMI
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

This classic recording was for many listeners their introduction to the work. There are many other great interpretations, but despite its dated recording quality most of us were so irrevocably imprinted by it that it became hard to listen objectively to any other account; it was, and remains, definitive.

However, it was recognised right from the start that its sound engineering was somewhat problematic and its first remastering by EMI onto CD in 1986 did not achieve ideal results, it being still rather opaque, lacking impact on loud, high notes and with strings sounding glassy and peaky. Happily, the latest remastering by Warner resolves all those issues and is indeed a triumph: now there is only the very faintest background hiss, a far greater sense of presence and depth in the aural field and no overloading: Baker’s voice rings out, sounding richer and warmer than ever.

The beauties of her singing do not need to be rehearsed here: her plangent lower register, firm, golden tone, variety of tonal colouring and deeply sensitive interpretation of the words are all ideal. She can send a thrill of delight shivering up your spine simply by the way she inflects a single phrase like “the hurrying blast” and her concluding top A is stunning. She is unobtrusively aided by Barbirolli’s unerring judgement in finding just the right tempo for each song and the Hallé’s playing simply glows.

I suggest acquisition of the new remastering even if you have an older issue; you will hear the difference. Mind you, it should be noted that this remastering is available only as part of the big Warner Barbirolli box set.

Kerstin Meyer (mezzo-soprano) 1970 live, Intaglio
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

Celebrated Swedish mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer was an interesting engagement to sing these songs, usually the province of British singers, in what was Barbirolli’s penultimate concert at the Kings Lynn Festival, just a few days before his death. Already very ill and having collapsed that afternoon, he went on to conduct a superb performance of Elgar’s First Symphony and the Sea Pictures here. Meyer’s English is close to impeccable – although “shall” comes out as “shell” and “land” as “lend”, like 1950’s BBC RP - and she has the range, from secure low notes to a free, ringing top, but I am not entirely reconciled to her slightly wavery vibrato and her marginally “bottled”, plaintive tone compared with the rounder, warmer voices of singers such as Baker, Shacklock, Finnie or Rudge. The narrow stereo sound here is surprisingly satisfactory without much discernible hiss. Barbirolli of course yet again provides the most sympathetic of accompaniments; the second song is the gentlest and slowest of the various versions here and I like its dreamy quality. Indeed, Barbirolli brings a crepuscular quality to his interpretation and the Hallé responds with playing of great sweetness and delicacy. There is very little audience noise.

If you like the individual nature of Meyer’s voice, everything else here is admirable and you will enjoy it very much, but it does not displace my own preferred versions, as much as I value the autumnal atmosphere Barbirolli brings to this performance – and that’s not just melancholy projection on my part, proceeding from hindsight…

Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano) 1976, Sony
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

This is a grandly sung Sea Pictures which yields only to Janet Baker for vocal splendour. Barenboim’s speeds are not especially slow but the effect of his easy rubato and gentle easing into phrases in combination with the rich beauty of Yvonne Minton's vibrant, velvety mezzo-soprano, with its trenchant lower register so ideally suited to suggesting mysterious "sea sounds", is to create a dreamy, tranquil atmosphere which is most seductive. She does not constantly enliven the text as Baker does, but her diction is impeccable and her top notes easy and thrilling. There is no lack of drama at key points, despite Barenboim's essentially reflective approach; for example, the opening of the final song is makes considerable impact. To sum up, the approach here is different, but affords almost as much pleasure as punchier accounts.

The spacious, recorded acoustic matches the breadth of the performers’ manner. The suave nobility of this recording will not be to all tastes but it is markedly superior to Barenboim’s much later, recent version.

Bernadette Greevy (mezzo-soprano) 1981, CfP
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
This disc makes an apt memorial to conductor Vernon Handley and the admired Irish mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy, who died within a few weeks of each other in September 2008. Greevy had the right voice to encompass the varied demands of this music: large, warm and flexible with an alto core and the requisite upper extension. Handley was a champion of Elgar and English music in general, taking his time over phrasing, giving his singer ample space to caress the long lines in the slower songs. She is not as verbally acute or pointed as some, nor does her voice stretch to much variety of tone and colour, but this is assured singing. I do find some her vowels just a little odd – “stee” for “stay”, for example – but that is a passing flaw. While this recording might not be a first choice, anyone making acquaintance with this cycle via Greevy and Handley will be well served.

Margreta Elkins (mezzo-soprano) 1983, ABC (currently unavailable)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Werner Andreas Albert

I like Margreta Elkins’ husky timbre and suspect that not too many people will be familiar with her unusual voice, which possessed a good lower register and an easy, ringing top. She recorded and performed frequently with Callas and, particularly, Joan Sutherland but although she was a resident principal artist with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for 10 years, she became increasingly reluctant to take up offers to sing outside her native Australia, so did not become as well know as she might have. She was in her fifties when she recorded this but there are no signs of wear in her tone; she clearly looked after instrument and her mezzo-soprano is steady and refulgent. Her vocal colouring does not have the widest palette – there is a touch of staid, churchy solemnity to her manner - but she sings with feeling and intensity. Her attack and breath control in the final song are splendid. There is also an element of heaviness in conductor Albert’s direction which needs more lift and spring, but in general his accompaniment and the playing from the Brisbane orchestra are admirable.

This is currently out of the catalogue, which is a pity, as I would say this is something of a find, but, as ever, second-hand copies turn up so buy it if you see one and meanwhile you may hear it on YouTube.

Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano) 1986, EMI
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox

Hickox knows exactly how to pace this glorious music; rubato is applied lightly but to telling effect and Felicity Palmer's tangy, plangent mezzo - to which I have always responded instinctively - is sufficiently vibrant and penetrating to prevent any sense of Victorian alto stolidity. The now retired Palmer had a rare voice of the Falcon type which, like her near contemporary Rosalind Plowright, began as a soprano and moved into the mezzo Fach, so her top notes are huge and penetrating but she has ample resonance in its lower regions. While she might not have Janet Baker's sumptuous tone and subtle nuance, she brings great directness and musicality to delivering profoundly satisfying, if straightforward, accounts of these oddly captivating songs.

The organ has proper prominence in the last song. I could have done with a little more immediacy in the recorded acoustic, but that slight distancing suggests a concert hall location (it was in fact Watford Town Hall).

Linda Finnie (mezzo-soprano) 1991, Chandos
The London Philharmonic/Bryden Thomson

I reviewed this late in 2018 and reproduce the relevant paragraph here:

This is indubitably a lovely account; I particularly relish the deep timbre, exemplary diction, seamless breath control and evenness of production of Linnie Finnie’s lovely contralto. Bryden Thomson provides her with deeply sensitive and detailed accompaniments, never rushed and perhaps a tad ponderous for those accustomed to Barbirolli’s brisker manner but suffused with emotion and greatly enhanced by the clarity of the digital sound. Finnie has the power when it is required but frequently employs dynamics shaded down to a ppp; she also has no difficulty with the higher-lying passages which troubled lower-voiced singers such as Kathleen Ferrier.

I found Finnie’s recording to be among the very best in my recent survey of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer; this is equally distinguished.

Della Jones (mezzo-soprano) 1993, Decca/Argo
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras

Della Jones has a slightly strange vocal production with quite a wide, “rattling” vibrato bordering on a tremolo, a pronounced glottal attack and a somewhat bottled timbre, especially as she goes up. She plunges easily into a lower register which is not especially well tonally integrated with the middle and top of her voice, and thus sounds “applied” – all of which conspires to prevent me from taking much pleasure in her voice, I’m afraid, as I do not find the voice beautiful or appealing. Nor do I like her overdone diction, with rolled r’s.

Judge for yourself, by all means, by sampling this on YouTube but you may safely infer that this is not a recording I favour.

The recording is rather recessed but adequate.

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) 2006, Naxos
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Simon Wright

I much prefer this, the earlier by seven years, of Sarah Connolly’s two recordings by reason of her voice being more attractive here. Her vibrato is much less pronounced, her timbre is fuller and more pharyngeal, her diction and expression sharper and her top notes fuller - and I even prefer Simon Wright’s direction to that of Sir Andrew Davis’, as it has more grip and coherence despite his tempi in all except the last song being somewhat slower. Nonetheless, her voice is not as firm and powerful as my favourite versions and is without their sheen and allure, but if you want this singer, this is the better option.

Naxos' sound is clean but somewhat recessed and lacking in depth.

Roderick Wiiliams (baritone) 2009, Dutton
BBC Concert Orchestra/Martin Yates

Even though I prefer to hear these songs sung by a rich mezzo, I include this out of a sense of duty and obligation, as Roderick Williams is a much-admired artist and it is a novelty to hear them sung by a baritone. I can certainly admire his artistry, musicality and precise diction, but cannot say that I am enamoured of hearing Sea Pictures performed thus. There is a lack of impact at this tessitura and the music doesn’t sit well with the centre of baritone’s voice, the result being rather monotonous and inclined to sound…well…groany, especially as Williams’ lower notes are not especially resonant. He also performs the songs blandly, in a very restrained, relaxed manner, generating scarcely any sense of danger and employing a mezza-voce in the soft songs which is sometimes perilously close to a croon. Perhaps to compensate, he seems to be closely and forwardly recorded in comparison with the recessed orchestra. He sings out rather more in the final song but it’s still all very polite; his top notes are strained and grainy, containing a lot of falsetto-mix. This is, in any case, hors concours; those who want it will know who they are and it is perhaps not my place to deter them. I can only say that I shall not be listening to this again.
 
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) 2013, Chandos
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis

This recording provides evidence that there has clearly been some deterioration in Sarah Connolly’s voice since her earlier recording, where it is purer, lighter and more neatly produced. I know I can sound obsessive on this point, but I immediately notice a degree of obtrusiveness in her vibrato here, which might be acceptable in louder, more overtly “operatic” music but is less apt for the quiet passages in Sea Pictures. Nor is there anything particularly striking about her timbre and range: there is a slight scratch and edge in the voice, low notes are indifferently resonant and for me there is a fine line between reposeful serenity and listlessness – as per Barenboim’s second recording – below which Davis and Connolly fall.

Comparison with singers in whose voices the pulse is firmer and faster and whose tone has a more voluptuous quality incline me to default to the recordings of Janet Baker, Linda Finnie and their like; others are far more enthusiastic but I hear nothing of distinction here.
 
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) 2015, Hallé
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder

I am well aware that Alice Coote has received all kinds of plaudits but I am not among her admirers. I find the very first bars of the opening song positively grotesque, she so overdoes the expressive breathiness in a manner which would surely not work beyond the bounds of a studio recording. I want more tonally centred voce and less actorish mouthing, please. That excessive emoting continues throughout; given that she is a singer who has received guidance from Dame Janet, I am surprised that she has not imbibed more understanding of how to apply and rein in expression with more taste and subtlety. The opening of the third song is again hammy and under-vocalised; Ms Coote frequently squeezes and croons notes in a manner I find intolerable. Every phrase is mercilessly mauled to extract its emotional marrow as if she were channelling Fischer-Dieskau on steroids.

This is a pity, as I can hear that Mark Elder is providing close to ideal accompaniment in music by a composer with whom he has proved himself to have a special affinity. This is one of the few recordings I do not wish to hear again.

Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano) 2019 live, Decca
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim

The first noticeable feature of this recording is that it enjoys superb sound, although the voice is very forward compared with the orchestra. There is absolutely no extraneous, ambient sound. Garanča must be commended on her command of the English – she is married to a British-Gibraltarian conductor - but there are tell-tale signs in her vowels, diphthongs and elisions that she is not entirely idiomatic in the language or completely at ease and comes across as muted in a medium which is obviously foreign (in every sense) to her. I appreciate that this is harder for a non-native speaker but any objective critique must observe that just occasionally the sense of the words is obscured in a mush of diction.

The voice is generally in good shape but her low Gs lack heft and this is an oddly listless, over-restrained account which lacks the fervour the best exponents bring to it – in fact, it has the feeling of a rehearsal sing-through waiting for the inspiration which a live performance should confer on it. “He shall assist me to look higher” is almost perfunctory. Her low G’s in "Sea Slumber song" are weak and lacking resonance, and there is a lack of sfumato shading in her verbal and musical delivery but her final top A is good.

Barenboim has of late produced too many dull recordings; he fared better with Yvonne Minton over forty years earlier.

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) 2019, Onyx
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Petrenko

Not having heard Kathryn Rudge before I was immediately struck by the similarity between her warm, fruit mezzo-soprano and that of Marilyn Horne (who I believe sang and taught these songs but did not record them). She has fine legato, superb breath control ensuring great steadiness of line and makes much of the words – and I like the subtle portamento she injects into their linkage. The warmth of her delivery is matched by the ease and gentleness of Petrenko and the RLPO in the first song. He has developed an affection for English music and moulds the orchestral phrasing with great care and restraint, ensuring that Elgar’s colouring and textures emerge clearly; much of this recital is executed with great delicacy by both the singer and the instrumentalists. That of course, is only half the story; they also need to be able to generate excitement in the more demonstrative third and fifth songs. Rudge never sacrifices beauty of tone to expressiveness but generates a sense of coiled tension with is gradually released beginning at “He shall assist me to look higher” and rises to a noble climax with a fine top A on “burning” followed by a lovely orchestral afterglow – impressive. Simplicity is often the key to fine singing and “Where Corals Lie” is gauged to a nicety: Petrenko’s touches of rubato combined with the smoothness of Rudge’s vocal line make it ideal. I note, too, the depth and security of her lower register, making her sound as much contralto as mezzo-soprano – again, like Marilyn Horne. Finally, “The Swimmer” is given truly impetuous treatment, so that the listener shares the thrilling ride over the foaming waters.

The sound is impeccable and Rudge’s diction equally so, ensuring that the text emerges with unparalleled clarity.

This was a great and welcome surprise to me; it is everything Barenboim’s recent recording is not and is easily among the top choices. My MWI colleague John Quinn recently reviewed this with equal enthusiasm.
 
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (mezzo-soprano) 2019, Mer(s) Warner Classics
Orchestre National Bordeaux Acquitaine/Paul Daniel

I have in the past been bothered by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s excessive vibrato; it is much better here if still occasionally too broad, especially when she leans too heavily into a phrase at high volume. However, the middle of her voice is attractive, with a bell-like resonance and her top A flat is secure, if just a tad edgy. Kudos to her, too, for her excellent English, which is virtually indistinguishable from that of a native singer and enunciated with admirable clarity. She says that her inspiration was Janet Baker and she emulates her model by paying close attention to nuances of meaning and inflection. The last song clearly stretches her, as it does many singers, and although she copes well, plunging fearlessly into her lower register, the beat in her voice obtrudes. She is given first-rate support by Paul Daniel who clearly has a deep affinity with the Elgarian idiom and secures beautiful playing from his orchestra. The sound is very bright and up-front, with a good balance between voice and orchestra. This will not displace my favourites but affords considerable pleasure.

Recommendations:
 
So many of the above recordings feature beautiful voices delivering almost wholly satisfying accounts of this music that selection is somewhat arbitrary. It is also worth bearing in mind that as the songs themselves take up less than twenty-five minutes, their coupling might influence choice. I thoroughly enjoy versions by Minton, Greevy, Palmer, Elkins and Finnie in particular – note that, as usual, my preferences are for older singers with the notable exception of the recent Petrenko recording, which I am glad to endorse just to prove that I am not resistant to modernity – but one recording continues to stand above all others, especially now that sonically it has been so well restored – and you already know which that is…
 
Historical choices: Shacklock 1958 Barbirolli Society; Ripley 1954 Pristine
Modern choice: Baker 1965 Warner* (original or remastered); Rudge 2019
*First choice
 
Ralph Moore



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