The term “historic” has been applied to recordings rather loosely. I’ve seen it used for stereo analogue recordings of the 1950s which, with old-school conductors able to balance the orchestra without relying on console engineers and simple microphone layouts, knock for six the gerrymandered 32-track recordings of the ‘80s. But historic is what the three Somm discs reviewed here undoubtedly are: mono, made between 1940-1959, mostly from live concerts, originally low frequency radio broadcasts. One derives from an engineer and music enthusiast recording the radio on his ingenious home-made set up in the wartime 1940s. Hi-fi this is not. Somm’s remastering expert Lani Spahr has no doubt done a sterling job but he’s not a miracle worker so, caveat emptor.
Somm’s Elgar discs have stiff competition from EMI’s own Abbey Road studio recordings with the composer conducting, gold standard for this repertoire, and Naxos’s series remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. Somm has found a new seam to mine by using recordings from over the pond. ‘Elgar from America’ Volume I ★★ has the ‘Enigma’ Variations from the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini (1949); the Cello Concerto, Gregor Piatigorski soloist, Barbirolli conducting (1940) and ‘Falstaff’, under Artur Rodzinski (1943) both with the New York Philharmonic live at Carnegie Hall. ‘Falstaff’ is ruled out by Rodzinski’s swingeing cuts to the score and the double basses in ‘Falstaff’s March’ sound like the loose, flapping boom of a cheap subwoofer. The concerto is here a cello solo with the orchestra relegated to the middle distance but it’s fascinating to hear Piatigorski using lavish portamento as Elgar would have expected. The ‘Enigma’ was recorded in the notoriously dry-as-dust acoustic of Radio City’s Studio 8H but it is redeemed by a wonderful ‘Nimrod’ of towering grandeur and nobility. At 2.54 it is moulded from the same clay as Elgar’s own (2.53). Only Solti (3.08) of modern conductors matches Elgar’s nobilmente spirit, resisting the temptation to make the ‘Mighty Hunter’ a lachrymose whiner – a nadir plumbed by Bernstein’s half speed (6.06) exercise in egregious emotional self-indulgence.
The treasure trove comes in ‘Elgar from America’ Volume III (2 CDs) ★★★★ with a searingly powerful, impassioned live Carnegie Hall broadcast of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ with the New York Philharmonic and Westminster Choir under Barbirolli. English tenor Richard Lewis is a sterling Gerontius and the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester is arguably the brightest of Angels. ‘Vaughan Williams Live’ Volume 3 (2 CDs) ★★★ has the composer conducting his own ‘London’ Symphony and two Prom recordings of the fifth, its 1943 premiere and one from 1952 plus ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ (BBC 1936). There are few recordings of RVW conducting – “nobody asked”, he said – so they are valuable documents for the scholar and specialist. How much, given their sonic limitations, the ordinary listener will enjoy or profit from them is another question.