If you want something out of the ordinary in terms of Elgar fare, then there’s four minutes on this disc which should extend your collection; but that’s not to dismiss the rest out of hand.
Mark Elder is making something of a name for himself as an Elgarian, and is in the best of possible places to do so considering that his predecessors in his post in Manchester include Richter, Harty and Barbirolli. On the other hand that roll call could make it a hard act to follow. The full orchestra is listed at the back of the booklet, and one wonders how many of them were playing in Barbirolli’s day thirty odd years ago, for the three conductors listed above formed a fairly continuous line to pass on the tradition, while Elgar himself was a frequent guest and friend to all three men. That does not happen these days. Now we have moved on, the Free Trade has given way to the Bridgewater Hall. Elder has recorded this mostly familiar Elgarian fare, starting with a radiant account of Enigma which, apart from an opulent degree of lingering at the end of C.A.E., gets straight to the heart of each personality and its idiosyncrasies. The strings surmount the Mendelssohnian skittishness of Steuart-Powell with ease and rush up and down the stave in Troyte with impressive unanimity of ensemble and intonation, while finding a radiance with which to suffuse both Meath Baker and Jaeger in glorious tone. Of the many fine solos Lynsey Marsh’s clarinet is outstanding in the Romanza and as Ysobel, so too Hugh McKenna’s personification of Winifred Norbury’s trilling. The two of them fuse together in Dorabella’s stuttering habits. Listen out in her variation for more than pp moments in Graham Salvage’s bassoon playing (figure 39-40), which bring out details not usually heard here. Whilst on the subject of pianissimo, the start of Nimrod is magically quiet as the first violins sustain their G between variations, followed by a solemnly paced account with arching phrasing and an eye for detail, including some highlighting of lovely moments for cellos. Dan the bulldog makes a stunningly virtuosic leap, paddle, and barking shake during his brief appearance, while Basil Nevison never played the cello as finely as Peter Worrall does to start and conclude his variation. A rough hewn finale packed with detail, complete with organ, concludes this thrilling account.
If you like your string playing liberally coated with portamento, then the performance of the Serenade for Strings is one you will surely enjoy. It’s an account which comes from the heart, eloquently shaped and delicately paced from first note to last. Cockaigne gets an energetically vital interpretation from Elder in Wagnerian Elgar (Die Meistersinger is so often recalled here and, as it happens, was the opera Elder conducted in his one and only foray into the political maelstrom of Bayreuth in 1981). The rest of the disc is a gentle-spirited Chanson de matin followed by a revisit to Enigma, with the original finale (a substantial 96 bars shorter than we are used to and without the organ) which Jaeger and (according to him) Richter thought too abrupt a conclusion. Actually this original ending is rather good but they were probably right, though Elgar accepted the advice with grudging reluctance.
After some dubious appointments by the orchestra in more recent years, Mark Elder has undoubtedly done wonders for the Hallé since he took up the post in 2000. Long may his own era last.