Sir Mark Elder, deservedly knighted since this recording was made, continues his Elgar series with the Hallé. In the two principal works he follows in the footsteps of his illustrious Elgarian predecessor, Sir John Barbirolli. JB made a splendid recording of Falstaff with the Hallé in 1964 and a legendary recording of the Cello Concerto with Jacqueline Du Pré in the following year, although on that occasion the orchestra was the LSO. Both of these recordings are included in EMI’s box of Barbirolli recordings of Elgar that was warmly welcomed by Rob Barnett in 2006. I’m sure that the concerto recording, at least, continues to be available separately as well in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. But there’s another Barbirolli recording of the Cello Concerto, perhaps less celebrated but excellent nonetheless, that forms an interesting link with this present CD. In 1957 he recorded the work for Pye with the Hallé and cellist André Navarra. I acquired the performance when EMI issued it on its Phoenixa imprint. However, it’s more recently been issued by Testament (SBT 1204). The link between the recordings is that Heinrich Schiff was a pupil of André Navarra.
Those seeking a big, emotional performance of the concerto in the manner of Du Pré should probably look elsewhere for Schiff takes a more objective view of the work. In this he’s not unlike his teacher, I think, and it’s interesting to note that Schiff’s timing for the work as a whole is pretty close to the 27:09 that Navarra takes. Du Pré, by contrast, spreads the work out to 29:56, the main point of difference being the finale, which lasts 12:15 in her performance, where Navarra takes 10:52 and Schiff 10:04. The discrepancy is almost wholly explained by the deeply emotional—some would say indulgent—way in which Du Pré treats the extended slow episode in that movement. I still admire her performance of the concerto greatly but I’ve come to think that perhaps a slightly “straighter” way with the finale is preferable.
In his characteristically perceptive notes for this Hallé disc Michael Kennedy reminds us that Elgar himself described the concerto as “good and alive” and writes that though there is “an autumnal world-weariness about the concerto, one should not overlook the ‘alive’ quality.” I’d say that Schiff and Elder get the balance about right. So, though the first movement is properly reflective one never senses that there’s a danger of the music becoming overcooked through sentiment. The lovely third movement is gently poignant. It’s not as overtly expressive as Du Pré’s reading but I like the comparative restraint of Schiff and Elgar is never short changed. The outer episodes of the finale are indeed “alive” and full of vigour. In the central section Schiff is more clear-eyed than is Du Pré but there’s a sufficient degree of introspection.
I enjoyed Elder’s account of Falstaff very much. It may not be quite as ripe as Barbirolli’s account but it’s a keenly observed reading and the teeming detail of Elgar’s score registers well with the listener. My colleague, Tony Haywood, pointed out that Sir Mark’s considerable operatic experience pays dividends in a score such as this and I concur with that view. Elgar was at the height of his powers as both a composer and an orchestrator when he penned this masterpiece and Elder has the skill to lay out this fascinating character study with conviction and narrative aplomb. Incidentally, listeners who are new to the work will find it a huge help that the performance is divided into ten separate tracks, all linked back to Michael Kennedy’s note.
The performance is launched with a confident gait. Elder and his fine orchestra, which is on top form, bring out all the opulence and swagger of Elgar’s writing. However, pretty soon I realised that the real strength of this performance lies in the way the more subtle passages are delivered. Thus the needlepoint accuracy of the playing at the start of the Gadshill robbery episode (track 3) is noteworthy, as is the way in which Falstaff’s subsequent sack-induced torpor, snores and all, is realised (track 4). On the other side of the coin, the passage where the Fat Knight learns of Prince Hal’s accession to the throne (track 9) is bustling and exciting. The excellence of the playing means that you can palpably sense Falstaff’s pride and eagerness at the news as he hastens to join the coronation revels as fast as his girth will allow. Elgar’s brilliant portrayal of the coronation pageantry is delivered with swagger by Elder and his players. The pathos of Falstaff’s rejection by his erstwhile drinking partner is eloquently conveyed—the playing really engages our sympathies at Falstaff’s plight. I won’t lightly give up my Barbirolli recording of this work but Elder’s version is a worthy successor.
The Romance for bassoon is, I suppose, an example of the lighter side of Elgar. But is it? Michael Kennedy points out that its composition was contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto and that it is a “thematic offshoot” of that great work. Do we see Elgar here letting the instrument that he himself played in his younger days muse briefly on some of the great matters addressed in the Violin Concerto? The Hallé’s principal bassoonist, Graham Salvage, treats us to a lovely performance of this delightful miniature.
The Smoking Cantata is a curiosity and nothing more. It’s a fragment of a mere nine bars in which Elgar indulges himself in a musical jest, scored in a grandiose way. I doubt I shall listen a second time.
The sound quality of this issue is first rate, reporting with great clarity and fidelity the superb playing of the Hallé. Sir Mark Elder proves himself yet again to be a perceptive and committed guide to Elgar’s music and collectors who have acquired other issues in this series need not hesitate. Elder’s forthcoming recording of the Violin Concerto is eagerly awaited.