These days, Belgium seems to most people a bit of a shambles, but during WW1 the fate of “plucky little Belgium” was a matter of great interest to the British people, and these pieces were extremely popular. This 82-minute Elgar album is of interest mainly for the three First World War pieces Elgar wrote to words by the exiled Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts.
Today’s listeners will perhaps be put off by the narrations, which are well done here by Florence Daguerre de Hureaux.
Carillon (1914) has a great tune, and can be listened to as a purely orchestral piece.
I can’t find much to say in favour of the third, Le Drapeau Belge (The Belgian flag, 1917), but the middle piece, Une Voix Dans le Desert (1916) is a masterpiece. As well as a narration, there’s a touching peasant girls' song, well sung here by Kate Royal, and some sensitive orchestral music that shows Elgar near his best.
The two main orchestral pieces are the Straussian concert overture In the South (1904), and the ubiquitous Enigma Variations (1899), which set Elgar on the road to international fame. In The South proceeds a little sluggishly at times (Brabbins 22.40: Boult 19.48), but nevertheless, packs a worthwhile punch.
The Enigma Variations are also excessively expansive (Brabbins 33.15: Elgar 27.26: Barbirolli (1957) 27.48: Boult 30.02), but here you don’t notice any sluggishness, because Brabbins characterises each variation most effectively within his chosen tempi. He also employs the optional organ in the finale, which I always enjoy.
Room is also found (why?) for an orchestral version of Elgar’s song Pleading, which sounds really well when sung by a good tenor, but is frankly a waste of time here. Nevertheless, Elgarians will surely want the wartime stuff.