This box contains reissues of four CDs originally appearing singly at various times but with the constant factor of William Boughton as conductor. One’s two principal regrets are that the individual issues could not have been fitted onto three CDs - especially since we have two performances each here of the
Chanson de nuit and the
Chanson de matin - and that the original booklet notes have been jettisoned in favour of a rather brief anonymous essay which gives very little information on the music itself. Given that the main attraction of the box is likely to be for those who are first making the acquaintance of Elgar’s music. This is an opportunity missed; we are not even given details of the individual charactersRead more in the
Enigma Variations, for example, and given William Boughton’s close attention to the various personalities of the “friends pictured within” a whole dimension of the music itself will be missed by an inexperienced listener.
Three of the four discs in this box have recently been reviewed by myself for this site and I will not repeat the more detailed observations I made on the performances here. The third CD however, containing the music for string orchestra, has not previously been reviewed by me and I will therefore confine my remarks to that disc. Indeed this disc appears to be no longer available except as part of this box.
This disc was the earliest of all of Boughton’s recordings of Elgar, made with his English String Orchestra when it was purely a string body and before it was expanded to form the English Symphony Orchestra. It includes the duplicated
Chanson de nuit and
Chanson de matin – they are indeed omitted from the track-listing on the back of the box and also from the listing on Archiv Music. The remainder of the tracks, including the rare suite from the unfinished opera
The Spanish Lady, duplicate a famous 1968 recording made by Neville Marriner with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and they are not put into the shade by that vintage disc - now only available as part of a ‘Double Decca’. In the
Introduction and Allegro there is plenty of body to the string sound; the solo quartet play excellently and are well balanced with the main body. The Welsh folksong at 6.10 is given with just the right sense of mystery, and the chilling string
tremolando which cuts across it gives a perfect
Elegy, taken very slowly, is given a wonderful degree of gravity without ever over-heating – one of the tenderest versions on disc. The beautiful
Sospiri, similarly very slow (it almost comes to a halt at the very beginning), lacks the warmth that was brought to the score by Barbirolli for example, but has a lovely sense of wistfulness. When the tune returns on the lower strings the high violin
tremolandos which should bring a sense of icy desolation to the music are not really clear enough, almost obscured by the harp and organ. Barbirolli shows how it should be done.
Serenade for strings is phrased with delicacy. The
Chanson de nuit and
Chanson de matin are given in arrangements for string orchestra which work well; these versions were not made by Elgar himself but by his friend the violinist William Reed. They are both somewhat faster than the orchestral versions on CD 4 and they are more effective at the slower speed there – indeed the
Chanson de nuit, almost a minute shorter here, sounds quite different and indeed almost mechanical.
The suite from
The Spanish Lady was arranged by Percy Young from the opera that Elgar left unfinished at his death. Unfortunately the music is not on the same level as that for the similarly unfinished
Third Symphony. It is more in Elgar’s light orchestral vein, and although Boughton gives the pieces with gentle sympathy they do not really engage the attention. When one considered how effective Elgar was in his semi-operatic
Caractacus or the other oratorios such as
The Apostles and
The Kingdom, it is strange to find him so laid-back in his approach to the operatic form at the end of his life. In fact one suspects that he was taking the opportunity to recycle much earlier material, as he did at times once his inspiration began to run dry after the death of his wife. Hearing the operatic score as completed by Percy Young - once available as a broadcast transcription of a
BBC Music Magazine cover-mounted CD - confirms that impression. There is nothing here which proclaims the dramatic genius that Elgar had displayed in
Gerontius. Still these pieces are rarities on disc – apart from Marriner’s version there is only one rival currently listed – and it is nice to hear them again.
It would be a good idea for Nimbus to reissue this third disc separately once again for those who would like an alternative to Marriner’s survey of Elgar string music; in any event no longer available as a single release. It would also serve those who would like to hear Reed’s transcriptions of the
Chansons, not so far as I aware available elsewhere
. The set as a whole can be heartily commended to newcomers to Elgar’s music, and despite the fact that many of the most important works are missing – no symphonies, no concertos – they give a pretty comprehensive view of his orchestral works outside that sphere. It is just a pity that the booklet notes are not more enlightening.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International Read less