Elgar - Sir John Barbirolli. © 2022 Parlophone Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Solace to Listeners

PATRICK MAXWELL listens to a box set of John Barbirolli's Elgar recordings for Warner Classics

'... a musical artefact which still tells us how Britain's most famous composer really can sound like ...'


Edward Elgar still seems to inhabit an ambiguous place in English culture. Even now, he looks to many like the archetypal composer of England at its imperial height, the composer of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the late Romantic tune-stringer of 'Nimrod' and 'Chanson de Matin' who finally managed to persuade anyone outside the country that 'Die Land ohne Musik' was no more. The image of the assured upper-class gentleman has at least been shown as a facade. (A Catholic in Anglican England, a social climber during late Victorian decadence and self-taught at the height of academic composition, Elgar evidently cultivated that image to 'make his way'.) Works such as the Second Symphony have gained recognition for their emotional sensitivity and depth to save him from the confines of the Last Night of the Proms. British twentieth-century music found its hero in Britten, whose darker sides made Elgar look like an embarrassing epitome of Romanticised schmaltz.

Sir John Barbirolli's recordings in the 1960s did much to rescue Elgar from that post-imperial torpor. Barbirolli (1899-1970) dominated much of the London orchestral scene alongside Sir Adrian Boult - the former a Romantic, the latter a Classicist. Barbirolli played cello during the first performance of the Concerto for that instrument which Jaqueline de Pré did much to revive in 1965. Of the brilliant session shots included in this new seven-CD box-set, the best is of Du Pré recording that work, surrounded by an entirely male orchestra; Barbirolli's contented smile, with hand placidly outstretched, seems to be having little impact on the soloist - eyes shut, bow eating into the string. It's exactly as anyone who listens to the recording would think of it.

Listen — Elgar: Adagio (Cello Concerto)
(0190296438424 CD1 track 1, 0:02-1:02) ℗ 2022 Parlophone Records Ltd :

That recording is but the first half of the first CD here. Dame Janet Baker's Sea Pictures is next, a sumptuously subtle and effective interpretation of a piece which at times reminds one, unnervingly, of the Four Last Songs. Elgar was, as his British audiences took a while to realise, a consummate composer, a craftsman of melody, orchestration and effects on a par with his greatest European counterparts.

Elgar's symphonies stand apart from his other works noticeably: his reputation as a kind of programmatic composer - Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance - means that his larger-scale works have largely been the property of his admirers. His Second, written for debatable purposes in 1911, has long had its place as Elgar's most 'mature' work, showing him as more than the flustery, rigid triumphalism of the most famous pieces. When he conducted it in 1927, Barbirolli made his own reputation, particularly with the drawn-out grandeur and melancholy of the Larghetto second movement. A section worthy of Brahms, these thirteen minutes have some of Elgar's most developed colour schemes, even in the slightly fuzzy style of the Hallé Orchestra.

Listen — Elgar: Larghetto (Symphony No 2)
(0190296438424 CD4 track 2, 3:26-4:25) ℗ 2022 Parlophone Records Ltd :

It's clichéd to say this collection is the gift that keeps on giving, but it doesn't stop it being so: the sheer range of Barbirolli's interpretations is clear, as well as the evident intensity of his passion for the music. The orchestral sound is not as clear-cut as more recent recordings (Rattle, Elder, even Bernstein), and the penchant for Romanticism is evident. Tastes have moved on. Yet having devoted much of his career to promoting Elgar's work, Barbirolli has created a musical artefact which still tells us how Britain's most famous composer really can sound like, how wide his pallet of orchestral colours was, how developed his imagination in a parochial cultural world of Edwardian Britain.

Listen — Elgar: C A E (Variations on an Original Theme)
(0190296438424 CD2 track 8, 0:00-0:33) ℗ 2022 Parlophone Records Ltd :

Along with the Second Symphony, The Dream of Gerontius has transformed listeners' preconceptions of Elgar. The sheer virtuosity of choral and orchestral setting, and the palpable sense of spiritual meaning are unparalleled in most English music; only something like Parry's 1918 Songs of Farewell come close. In setting Cardinal Newman's text of the soul's descent to purgatory, Elgar was tackling ground of a depth not yet seen in England.

Listen — Elgar: Praise to the holiest (The Dream of Gerontius)
(0190296438424 CD7 track 10, 2:26-3:18) ℗ 2022 Parlophone Records Ltd :

When Strauss heard one of the first German performances of the work, he was distinctly surprised that an English composer had managed to write something of such heaviness and power - almost within the remits of the Brahms Requiem or an imaginary Wagnerian oratorio. Not that the work is not uniquely original either - a strong sense of the English landscape is clear in moments like the lilting orchestral opening to the second part. Richard Lewis' tenor is magnificent throughout, with the possessed, self-conscious nature of Newman's tale richly evoked. When Janet Baker returns with her oscillating melody near the end of the piece, her top notes are piercing, scintillating, heartbreaking.

Dr Johnson was probably right when he said (or, in fact, didn't) that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But one cannot help giving a little smile at the sound of some of the twentieth-century's great musicians here showing how some of its greatest music helped England out of its cultural morass. It deserves anyone's notice, all the more so where the lie of marches and colonial grandeur blots out the true Elgar - neither forward or backward-looking. Inward-looking is the most that could be said of his most enduring works, and that is enough to give solace to listeners from anywhere.

Copyright © 19 May 2022 Patrick Maxwell,
Buckinghamshire, UK








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