The Reeds by Severnside CD reviewed


Choral Music by Edward Elgar (SOMMCD 278)
We have on this timely and so well-produced release a fascinating guide through Elgar's progress from journeyman to great composer, taking us through the choral music he produced during his long career. No massive oratorios, cantatas or odes here, but a survey of some of his more modest works, often for unaccompanied chorus (William Vann directing the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea).
Andrew Neill's remarkably detailed and informative insert-notes guide us through this journey, which begins with the touching works the teenaged Elgar composed for the Roman Catholic St George's Church in Worcester (barely a stone's throw from the Anglican Cathedral where so many of his greatest triumphs would be celebrated) where he succeeded his father as organist.
The very early Gloria perfumes with Catholic incense and the influence of Mozart, reproducing the sounds the young Elgar would have heard at Mass. Joshua Ryan provides lovely organ registrations, and the stereo separation of the choristers is magnificently engineered.
After this comes the Credp, simply astounding in its references to several Beethoven symphonies (only those to the Ninth are unconvincing). Surely the teenage Elgar could never have heard all these works in performance in tucked-away Worcester; he must have soaked them up from the scores he stuffed into his pocket along with the bread and cheese he devoured during lunchtimes away from his father's shop. This is a remarkable achievement.
The Drakes Broughton hymn-tune, named after a hamlet near Pershore (we wonder why?) looks forward to the very end of Elgar's life, and its inclusion in the poignant Nursery Suite, composed for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. I wonder if our Queen remembers she was present , along with her father, mother and sister at the recording of the work, the Nursery Suite's premiere, Elgar conducting.
Three liturgical offerings follow, often with delicious organ interplay: "O Salutaris Hostia", genuinely-felt: "Jesu, Lord of Life and Mercy", with its incense-swaying ending, and "Jesu, meek and lowly!, with a sweet soprano solo.
We then leap across dozens of opus numbers before arriving at "As Torrents in Summer!, coming at the conclusion of the cantata King Olaf Elgar composed for Hanley in 1896. There is too much of the Anglican restraint here, something one would never have heard at the work's premiere qt the North Staffordshire Festival, but this account under William Vann is beautifully balanced and finely textured.
"There is Sweet Music" is famous for its bitonality, women answering men as though from above, and eventually combining. This is a more than wonderful example of Elgar's four-part vocal writing, and the ending is utterly atmospheric.
The chants of Psalm 68 pass by with little lasting impression, but the "Angelus", Elgar allegedly translating the text from its Tuscan original, is traced with delicate filigree, with wonderful interplay between sopranos and tenors.
"They are at Rest", setting a text from John Henry Newman, figuring again in Elgar's output after Gerontius, composed for the tenth anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, is simple and chaste, yet charged with the typically yearning, descending phrases so characteristic of the composer.
The plaintive, humble supplications of "Intende voci orationis meae" are short and sweet, preceding the grandeur of "Give unto the Lord "(Psalm 29), with its big opening, large-scale vision, and busy, important organ part. Textures here are almost orchestral (and unwittingly remind of the "Fate" leitmotif in Wagner's Ring). There are also some self-borrowings here, mirroring The Music Makers.
"Fear Not, O Land" is confident, Elgar masterly in his writing for this medium after so many decades, as is " I Sing the Birth", with its medieval atmosphere, solo voices answered by chorus.
Was a tinge of sycophancy involved in "Good Morrow – A simple carol for His Majesty's happy recovery"? I guess there was, and the memory of the continually social-climbing Alice Elgar was surely behind it. The piece seems workaday in its pen-pushing, and one wonders how much of Elgar's creative heart was in this.
Queen Alexandra's Memorial Ode (how old-fashioned that now sounds to our modern sensibilities, after the transforming 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II on the throne) has a Purcellian opening with its extended organ introduction, and its assured vocal writing reveals Elgar's genuine sentiment, perhaps thinking back to the 1904 Elgar Festival in which Queen Alexandra and her husband, King Edward VII, took so much interest.
This is an historically fascinating, well-performed and scrupulously-produced release. Some of the music may be uneven in quality, but this overview of Elgar throughout his long career remains a valuable document.
Christopher Morley

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