Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is an Enhanced CD, which contains both regular audio tracks and multimedia computer files.
R E V I E W S:
“Elgar: A Self-Portrait”: this enterprising collection fulfills the promise of its title in at least three ways. It offers a chronological survey, from his first really significant orchestral work to what is arguably his last (it’s hard to consider the Severn Suite, which followed the Bach transcription, as anything but a trifle); it sweeps across his emotional range, too, from his most private to his most grandiose; and it centers on his autobiographical ode, The Music Makers.
The Music Makers will probably draw the most attention: to the best of my knowledge, it’s been more than a decade
since this work had its last studio recording (a 2001 live performance by Howard Williams and the Oxford Orchestra da Camera, issued by Somm, did not inspire the critics I’ve read). The score is vintage Elgar, written in 1912, between the Second Symphony and Falstaff, when the composer was at the peak of his powers. Even so, its rarity is easy to understand. The text is an abysmal poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (“With wonderful deathless ditties/We build up the world’s great cities”); and just in case anyone might fail to capture the self-referentiality of a composer setting a text about making music, Elgar laces The Music Makers with quotations from his own music. These quotations not only distract you while listening (it’s hard to follow the argument if you’re also racking your brains trying to identify a fragment that’s just floated by); more damaging, they also give the music an aura of redundancy, like the conversation of an aging relative who insists on repeating old stories.
That’s not an entirely false impression. When Strauss threw in bits of his tone poems to paint his musical self-portrait in Ein Heldenleben (a score Elgar knew well), the device served as a sign of a turn in the road, as a self-confident tip of the hat to his youthful orchestral works before he started on his second career as an opera composer. The more integrated use of quotation in The Music Makers seems, in contrast, a recognition of the end of the road, a nostalgic look back at his masterpieces by a man haunted by doubts about the future. Those doubts were well founded. There were still a handful of masterpieces to come—not only Falstaff, but also the chamber music, the Cello Concerto, the underrated Spirit of England. But as Elgar said, “the atmosphere of [The Music Makers] is mainly sad”; and once the 1920s arrived, Elgar’s output sputtered and died.
Still, from the world-weary anxiety of its Prelude to the haunting eloquence of its epilogue, The Music Makers is full of magnificent artistry, not only in the autumnal lyricism that fuels the work’s advancement, but also in the ironic interruptions of “We fashion an Empire’s glory” (with sly references to Rule Britannia and The Marseillaise) and in the ambiguous harmonic dislocations of “And therefore today is thrilling.” And those without much Sitzfleisch may find the compact Music Makers (under 40 minutes) easier to get through than the relatively garrulous Gerontius, not to mention The Apostles or The Kingdom.
Elder gives us a vividly atmospheric performance, roughly midway between Boult’s brassy, muscular account and Bryden Thomsen’s dreamlike vision of the music. Two years ago, Bernard Jacobson described Elder’s recording of Elgar’s First Symphony as “affectionate without exaggeration, noble and grand without rodomontade” (27:2). I hear the same balance here, most exquisitely in the way Elder caresses the phrases without ever sacrificing a sense of progression. Mezzo Jane Irwin soars above it all with security and conviction; and while I wouldn’t want to take dictation from the chorus, they sing with enviable warmth and color.
The other three performances are excellent, too. In his interview elsewhere in this issue, Elder praises the personal character of his players—and what’s most striking here, I’d say, is the frequent chamber-music give-and-take, the individual distinctiveness of the solo lines that nonetheless always contributes to a coherent, larger whole. At the same time, the disc is notable for Elder’s recognition of the special idiom of each piece. Not only does the exuberance of Froissart stand out against the intimacy of Dream Children (well positioned as a palate-cleanser between the Overture and the choral main course), but it also—in its lean textures and light rhythms—provides a knowing counterpoint to the Bach transcription, placed as a dessert after The Music Makers and served up without apology for its high-calorie excess. Fine sound, too. All in all, a first-rate addition to the catalog.
Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Froissart Overture, Op. 19 by Sir Edward Elgar
Written: 1890; England
Dream Children, Op. 43 by Sir Edward Elgar
Written: 1902; England
The Music Makers, Op. 69 by Sir Edward Elgar
Jane Irwin (Mezzo Soprano)
Hallé Orchestra Chorus
Written: 1912; England
Fantasie and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Written: 1708 - 1717; ?Weimar, Germany
Notes: Arranger: Sir Edward Elgar.
Composition written: ?Weimar, Germany (1708 - 1717).
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