Value for money! At nearly eighty-two minutes, take a bow, Hyperion, who in this issue put to shame those labels that offer not much more than half the total track duration of this disc. And it’s not as if this was especially cheap to produce, with a large symphony orchestra plus three soloists.
So is it ‘never mind the quality, feel the length’? Not in my book; this is a very fine disc, with sharply characterised performances of popular Elgar works, plus some highly interesting and rewarding rarities.
The concert overture In the South was inspired by an Elgar family holiday to Italy. They spent time in a rented house in Alassio on the South-facing coast of Italy near the Andoran border, and it was in these idyllic and historic surroundings that Elgar conceived the piece. He later wrote, “…in a flash it all came to me—the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago, where now I stood—the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd—and then, all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had composed the overture—the rest was merely writing it down.”
This thrilling and colourful overture seemed to drop out of fashion for a time; then came an excellent Hallé/Elder recording in 2008, and just in the past few months Pappano’s new version with the Rome-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra. The latter is, if you like, in direct competition with this Brabbins version; each is very fine in its way, and the truth is I am quite reluctant to strongly recommend one over the other. However, the Hyperion recording is marginally superior in balance and orchestral sound, while having a British orchestra means that the authentic Elgarian style is a ‘given’. The lovely ‘Venice by moonlight’ episode suffers, on Pappano’s CD, from a viola player who clearly thinks he’s playing a concerto, whereas Brabbins’ violist is far more discreet and therefore more poetic.
Brabbins also shapes the music in a highly effective way, not content merely to observe dynamics and changes of tempo, but investing them with an imaginative quality that lights up every corner of the piece. Very much the same is true of his ‘Enigma’ performance. In this great masterpiece, it goes without saying that the individual personalities must come through; but it is in those wonderful transitions from one portrait to the next that the true magic of the music lies. I have never heard ‘Nimrod’ prepared more beautifully, and the variation itself thus gains immeasurably in its impact. The finale, Elgar’s self-portrait, is also hugely impressive, and again the Hyperion engineers have achieved the perfect perspective, so that the music never sounds overblown or blaringly loud as it sometimes can. I was also delighted to hear the organ coming through tellingly, adding a new colour to those final pages. This is an Enigma of true stature.
In one or two places, the balance is less than ideal, notably in the final section of the presentation of the Theme, where the cello counter-melody overwhelms the theme itself in the violins; and at the end of Variation 1, where the lovely clarinet solo doesn’t quite have enough presence. But these reservations are few and far between; this is top quality Elgar from Brabbins and his orchestra.
The rarities I mentioned above occupy the final four tracks of the disc, and the first three of these are especially interesting. Here we find a trio of works Elgar wrote to support the Belgian people in the dark days of World War 1. They all feature narrations of texts by the Belgian poet Ėmile Cammaerts, which are declaimed with great feeling by the actress Florence Daguerre de Hureaux. The first, Carillon, was composed in 1914, immediately after the invasion of Belgium by the German army. It celebrates the wonderful carillons, or bell-towers, which are such a feature of the country, and which became a symbol of national identity and defiance in those days. The second, Une voix dans le désert (‘A Voice in the Wilderness’)—poetically and musically the most remarkable—paints a picture of both tragic desolation and the survival of hope against all the odds. The third piece, Le drapeau belge (‘The Belgian Flag’) is the shortest and least original; but it completes the picture of Elgar’s active involvement in this great cause.
Finally, there is an arrangement of an Elgar song, ‘Pleading’. Originally, this was a setting for voice and piano of a poem by Arthur Salmon, which Elgar composed in 1908. He later prepared a ‘flexible’ arrangement for small orchestra, allowing for various instruments to play the solo line. That gives the opportunity for the excellent principal clarinet of the BBC Scottish SO to have a well-deserved moment of prominence to complete this outstandingly fine CD.