Elgar Partsongs CD


Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
BR Klassik 900522 ****

One of the problems with Elgar's vocal music is his choice of texts. Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius is a wonderful vehicle, as is actually O'Shaughnessy's The Music Makers. Many words have been spilt discussing the midnight oil which Elgar burnt compiling his own texts for The Apostles and The Kingdom, but it can safely be said he made good work of all the librettos for his choral works, whatever their quality.
But then we get to the partsongs. Did he really need the pittance of a commission to set some of these dreadful texts? Perhaps early on in his careerg he did, but surely not after the acclaim following the Enigma Variations, Gerontius, and the Elgar Festival of 1904.
Preceding his "arrival", however, his loyalty to his wife Caroline Alice's literary efforts is touching, culminating in the inclusion of her "In Haven: Capri" in the Sea Pictures of 1899.
Most substantial of all his settings of his wife's verses comes of course with "From the Bavarian Highlands", six choral songs with piano accompaniment (1895) remembering a happy holiday in Richard Strauss' Garmisch the previous autumn. The music is alive with both topographical detail and aspiration (no-one seems to have mentioned that the fourth song,, indeed entitled "Aspiration", is a chordal compression of the harmonic sequence which opens Schumann's Kinderszenen).
The performance of the set on this beautifully-packaged BR Klassik CD is fresh and enthusiastic. The excellent vocalists of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks sing with understanding, though the acoustic from which this live recording was taken does cloud their English diction. Max Hanft is the deft pianist, and Howard Arman conducts with persuasive insight.
Arman will be Chorusmaster when Sir Simon Rattle moves to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as Music Director, the first time Rattle has worked alongside a resident Chorusmaster other thanSimon Halsey. Coincidentally, one of the earliest recordings Halsey made with the CBSO Chorus was, wait for it, "From the Bavrarian Highlands".
More Alice Elgar settings come with the Two Partsongs for Women's Voices, two violins and piano (1894). "The Snow" is enlivened by the Central European panache of the string-writing as delivered by Radoslaw Szulc and Julita Smolen, and "Fly Singing Bird" is sheer loveliness.
Five Partsongs from the Greek Anthology are given by the men of the Rundfunk Chor with thunderous delivery and sonorous chording, before the whole choir comes together again for "Go, Song of Mine". This deeply-felt and ambitious setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's transliteration of Guido Cavalcanti's medieval Italian is my personal highlight on this release, given with such sensitivity to the text, not least the word "Go!".
The famous "As Torrents in Summer" from King Olaf is followed by another Longfellow setting, Spanish Serenade for women's voices, two delicious violins and piano.. Men's voices take over for the unaccompanied The Reveille, Elgar responding astutely to Bret Harte's somewhat repellent verse, contrasting in poor relief to Cardinal Newman's Elegy "They are at Rest", for mixed voices a cappella and indeed another highlight.
Weary Wind of the West (words by Thomas Edward Brown) is a fascinating example of a reworking by Elgar. He composed it in 1902 as a test-piece for unaccompanied mixed voices at the 1903 Morecambe Festival (in front of a daunting audience of 6000!), but in 1930 Novello's commissioned a version for women's voices and piano. It is that version we hear here, and it is especially valuable as an example of Elgar's writing for piano at this late stage in his life, redolent of the Five Improvisations he recorded around this time.
"The Prince of Sleep" (Walter de la Mare) for unaccompanied mixed voices makes a perfect conclusion to this collection, grave, reflective and otherworldly.
Though the sequence of works on this programme is well-constructed, this is not a disc I would choose for all-the-way-through listening, but it is so good to be able to pick and choose.
Incidentally, there is one slip in Howard Arman's lovingly-compiled insert-notes. Benjamin Britten (born in 1913) was not 16 when he criticised a 1931 Elgar performance of the Second Symphony as "dreadful (nobilmente sempre)." But don't let that put you off acquiring this loving and stylishly-performed disc.
Christopher Morley

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