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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar from America: Volume 2
Cockaigne (In London Town). Concert Overture, Op 40 [14:09]
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47 [14;22]
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op 61 (abridged) [40:55]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Mischa Mischakoff & Edwin Bachmann (violins); Carlton Cooley (viola); Frank Miller (cello)
NBC Symphony Orchestra /Malcolm Sargent (Cockaigne & Concerto)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (Introduction and Allegro)
rec. 18 February 1945 (Cockaigne); 20 April 1940 (Introduction and Allegro); 25 February 1945 (concerto), Radio City Studio 8H, New York AAD

In 2019 I welcomed Volume 1 in Lani Spahr’s projected series of vintage Elgar recordings from the USA. Here now is the follow-up release and once again it is full of interest.

The two performances conducted by Malcolm Sargent (these concerts pre-date his knighthood) come from a series of four concerts which he gave with the NBC Symphony Orchestra as his American professional debut in February 1945. However, let’s first consider the performance on this disc which is not conducted by Sargent.

In his absorbing notes, Lani Spahr reminds us that Arturo Toscanini regularly programmed two Elgar works, the ‘Enigma’ Variations and the Introduction and Allegro. The present 1940 account of the latter work was the only time that he programmed it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. To be truthful, it’s not a reading to which I warm. Toscanini lingers over the ‘Welsh Tune’ rather too much for my taste. At the start of the Allegro the music surges forward confidently and quickly. When the fugue arrives, Toscanini impels his orchestra into a virtuoso performance; there’s brilliance, to be sure, but it wasn’t long before I began to feel that the music was being over-driven. Maybe that impression is heightened by the eighty-year-old recording but, in all honesty, I think it’s mainly the result of Toscanini’s stylistic approach. There’s more to this piece than a virtuoso showpiece and I’m not sure that the maestro appreciated that sufficiently. The sound has come up well, given its age, though the bass does have a tendency to boom in louder passages.

Cockaigne was the work with which Malcolm Sargent chose to open his US debut concert. The booklet includes a quotation from the New York Times review of the concert by Olin Downes. Downes’ critique includes this comment: “It may have been the tension of a first appearance before a new public, which caused the performance to be rougher in tone quality and more episodic than sustained in its line. But the conductor’s sincerity, knowledge, zest in his tasks were communicated”. I have to admit that, apart from his work in some of the great choral pieces, I’ve never been Sargent’s greatest admirer. However, to my ears Olin Downes’ criticism seems unfair. Admittedly, I’m hearing the performance through the medium of a broadcast given some 75 years ago but I don’t hear roughness of tone quality and I particularly disagree about the alleged episodic nature of the interpretation. It seems to me that Sargent has the measure of the work and this performance is a good account of Elgar’s score. The music-making is sprightly where required and the orchestra plays the piece with no little vitality. I think the performance is successful. The sound is good.

A week later Sargent programmed Elgar’s great Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as his soloist. He also played the Handel/Harty Water Music suite. The result was a programme that was too lengthy for the radio broadcast and presumably this is why cuts were made in the concerto. The cuts are detailed in the booklet. In summary, the first movement emerged unscathed, fourteen bars were cut from the second movement, while the finale suffered the most significant cuts: 92 bars were excised. It’s a pity Sargent didn’t choose a slightly shorter opening work but it may be that the likely overrun only emerged during rehearsals. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf, states in his review of this disc that the cut in the finale was sanctioned by the composer and Menuhin was not alone in making it.

By comparison with what we heard in Cockaigne, the big opening tutti, as recorded, sounds a bit harsh and somewhat congested at times. Menuhin is placed forwardly in the sound picture – a bit too prominently for comfort, you may feel. The recorded balance accentuates Menuhin’s essentially brilliant approach to the music. Sargent and the orchestra give very good support but, inevitably, it’s Menuhin who commands the listener’s attention and there’s much to admire in his performance. In the slow movement the music calls for a more restrained style from the soloist so this means that the balance between Menuhin and the orchestra is better than was the case in the first movement. The performance goes well. The soloist is again balanced front and centre in the finale, to which Menuhin bring considerable virtuosity. The cut means that the extended accompanied cadenza arrives earlier than we are accustomed to hearing it (around 5:43). After the cadenza Menuhin and Sargent bring the concerto to an extrovert conclusion. It’s a pity about the cuts, but it’s valuable to have this Menuhin performance available on disc. It’s interesting also to hear Sargent accompanying – skilfully – a work that I don’t think he recorded commercially.

Elgar aficionados will want to hear this disc. It’s also a good expansion of the Sargent discography. I don’t know what sources Lani Spahr used but his audio restoration of all three recordings has been very well done. His booklet essay is very rewarding and full of interesting detail.
John Quinn

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf ~ Stephen Greenbank



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