Tag Archives: Elgar

Elgar In the South

Elgar penned a number of “Concert Overtures,” in the mode of Brahms, including, in some order of prominence, the popular Cocakaigne and Froissart; In the South (Alassio) would probably finish third, and hasn’t been recorded often. It’s a superb 100_0498piece, full of verve and dynamic melody, but very much requiring the special Elgarian touch which breathes life into his melodies, and inept hands render dull or bombastic. Boult recorded In the South twice, in 1955 and again in 1972 with the LPO on HMV. The earlier is my clear favorite, and I was lucky to recently pick up a pristine copy of the original issue, ALP-1359, which belies its mono sound, with whooping horns gloriously calling out the theme. (On CD here.) I learned the piece with Slatkin conducting the same band, 19 years later on an RCA CD. The companion Symphony No. 1 61iYj+5+ekL._SL500_leaves much to be desired, but the Overture never sounded more glorious. It’s not as nuanced a reading as Sir Adrian in ’55 when there was probably a good cohort in the orchestra yet who had played under the composer.

The Gramophone favored the Boult and later a Bournemouth record from Constantin Silvestri, 1968 vintage, which truly turns the piece into something new: I’m reminded with this record of Stokowski’s knack of taking underappreciated, underperformed works and by seeming sheer force of will making them sound like masterpieces (my favorite examples are his 1958 Everest recording of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture and much later RCA Khachaturian Sym. No. 3, if you don’t know the work, go buy a copy on CD). Silvestri at this time was recording a lot of “showpieces” with HMV, 100_0500including some in quadraphonic that made it onto the 8-track “TWO” imprint; doesn’t appear that the Elgar made the cut, a pity. The sound on the vinyl (ASD 2370) is the absolute height of HMV’s 1960s analogue wizardry: both immediate and lush, totally realistic and also dramatic in its sonic spacing. Available on CD in a number of iterations, though I can’t vouch for the sound. The performance is without equal, rising in its finlale that is positively stunning. And once again, I lament the fact that apparently only English orchestras, over decades, are interested in performing Elgar.

Fauré’s Violin Sonatas

Fauré was not the most prolific of composers but his music is of the highest caliber, particular the intimate chamber works; delicate and sensual in the iconic Gallic style of the time, with both memorable shorter melodies (the Romances sans Paroles are under appreciated pianistic gems on par with anything from Brahms or even Schubert); Dolly and the Masques et Bergamasques are pure joy; on the other handthe Requiem is an angelic sine qua non, an antidote to the gloom foretold in many others of the genre, most infamously in the words of a contemporary British critic who disdained the pieces for being a “lullaby of death.” As a student of Saint-Saëns and precursor to Ravel and the Impressionists, Fauré bridged styles and generations in the most interesting and rewarding ways — conservative in form, to some sensibilities, yet very free and modern stylistically.

Here I consider four of the handful of records of his two Violin Sonatas, which present both exemplars of these 100_9973characteristics and variety in their performances ranging from the earlier versions by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus (Columbia 5049, rec. 1953, available on CD from Sony). On my 6-eye copy the mono sound is resilient and pristine, with the violinist’s distinctive precision gliding along with little romantic dramatism. The tunefulness dominates rather than the musicians’ personalities, and the effect is pure delight in the first Sonata, written by a young man (aged 31) still under the sway of his mentor Saint-Saëns, who very much approved. The Sonata No. 2, written 40 years later, still possesses the melodic qualities of the first but is less of a token of the flourishes of the Parisian Belle Epoque than of more equivocal cultural, chaotic environment of 1917; “autumnal” to borrow a rather overused musicological term. Casadesus is an equal in these performances, driving the music as much as the soloist he accompanies. Both men were proficient in a wide range of repertoire, and often performed together; this record is in a sense their perfect collaboration.

It’s no surprise (and also somewhat regrettable) that Fauré’s music is mostly favored by his countrymen. The first record was made by Thibaud and Cortot in 1932. Similarities in pacing and style are very evident, and the partnership dynamic with Cortot is noticeable, Francescatti’s leaner, more crystalline tone deliver a different feel overall, however — despite the obviously expanded dynamic range. One can find the vinyl on the old HMV/COLH LP series and on CD from EMI. A presumably 78rpm transfer of the first Cortot 1st movement from the Sonata No. 1 is on YouTube here:

Probably the record held in highest esteem is that from Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley on Philips (9500-534, rec. 1978), Grumiauxwhich features the unmatchable technique and drama of Grumiaux’s instrumentalism in both Sonatas, with unmatched sonics from the height of the late analogue era. (The YouTube clip below concludes with his recording of the Franck sonata with Sebok as accompanist.)

A fuller tone and a more Romantic style (do I detect occasional double-stops?) position Grumiaux into revealing counterpoint with Francescatti, detracting nothing from either. Crossly is also more of an accompanist here than an equal partner in the performance. Available on CD in two versions, this first from Philips and a second from London — clearly some kind of cross-liscence from Polygram, here, though I can’t vouch for the sound on either.

A later rendition comes from the accomplished French violinist Pascal Amoyal with Anne Queffélec on Erato (71195, rec. 1979). The tone here is overall more subdued, more Brahmsian — not dark, to be sure — but less ebullient. An illuminating contrast

worth considering alongside the above mentioned discs. Amoyal recorded the works again with another master of French pianism, Pascal Rogé for London/Decca in the 1990s (Rogé’s solo Fauré album is a must-have). Likewise, Amoyal’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi CD of the Brahms Sonatas, with Pascal Devoyon, is among the finest on record, adapting the French sensibility to Brahms rather than the other way round. The Erato Amoyal has not been reissued on CD.

Lastly I mention the only more modern, CD-version of the Sonatas I favor on par with these vinyl records, from the Korean Dong-Suk Kang also accompanied by Pascal DevoyonKim on Naxos. From the same CD, below is a clip of Kang performing Fauré’s Romance for Violin and Piano, a good example of the tone/style I’m referring to (can’t seem to find the Sonatas for free on the web).

Kang has won recognition for recordings of works by Elgar, Sibelius, and Grieg and his approach reminds me most of the Elgar Violin Sonata in its most robust performances from Nigel Kennedy (Chandos ABRD-1099, and CD) and as well as Maxim Vengerov on Teldec.

By way of comparison, here is the first movement from Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Sonata.

Kang’s Naxos acoustics are the most open and spatial of all the recordings sampled here, and there is nothing to apologize for with the digital sonics. Kang is perhaps the robust of all soloists here, and Devoyon is more animated than he was with Amoyal; he too is a highly accomplished in the French repertoire of this era with many fine records (the Fauré cello sonatas with Isserlis, as well as the Saint-Saëns violin sonatas, and chamber works by Chabrier).

I’m by no means trying to be comprehensive here, just covering what I’ve got on vinyl, and the Kang, from about the time I generally stopped buying CDs.There are a few Fauré Sonata records I’m omitting, including the early Ferras/Barbizet on HMV (can’t abide his vibrato) and Bobesco on vinyl, Mintz on CD, and a very few others who have ventured here.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

I knew this work from childhood, in the classic Heifetz version from RCA. As I’ve grown into a more mature critic, my opinions have migrated.

Mutter/KarajanFor a long time I was under the spell of Karajan and Mutter, who dig into the work with a serioso unmatched by the field. The tempi are slower, but perhaps the drama more exposed. And there is the overwhelming sound of the BPO, in all its richness, capturing every nuance of sonic dimension. But not the emotion. We are firmly in HvK’s world, with Mutter, but in comparison to several others….it is lacking.

Campoli, with Boult. An English touch, somehow both rich and light; Elgarian. Noble, not Germanic and heavy in its impact. Campoli’s tone delves deeper than Perlman or Francescatti, and Boult manages an ebb and flow that keeps the music flowing in a dramatic, but also delightful way with the accompaniment. There is less symphonic weight here compared to Karajan, but more storytelling. In the London Stereo Treasury pressing, there is also far more sonic depth and richness than the DGG digital press with HvK. It is astoundingly vivid. As with many of these later orange label reissues. This will not go into the eBay pile. And it presents a contrast not just with Mutter, but with Milstein, whose EMI I only recently got to know. Campoli appears to be available on CD only in an out-of-print specialty release. Hard to believe.

So now to Milstein. His EMI recordings were not issued early on CD, when I worked at Tower Records, and on LP they are among the most difficult to acquire. (He re-recorded the concerto with Claudio Abbado years later, in a much less compelling reading.) My copy of the EMI is a US Angel pressing, the prized Triangle stamper. Sound is absolutely pristene, with less surface noise than either the Campoli or the Mutter from later decades, though less sonic depth than the Campoli. Milstein floats with his light vibrato, a bit much at times perhaps, but ultimately conveying an elegance that blends with the drama of the work. This is a positively seductive reading, the violin tone drawing one in like a lover….in a way that that those of us who are vulnerable to the beauty of sound makes us literally weep. The second movement is a personal appeal, not a performance. There is a reason Milstein is different.

And then in the final movement he zips along…as capable of showing joy and exuberance as he is the intangibles of internal emotion.

I played this for my father some weeks ago, who raised me on the Classics, and he too was stunned. He knows the work but is not in the business of criticism. He knew nothing of Milstein. But after it passed all he had to say was “Bravo.”

A New Favorite: The 1957 Karajan Haydn Variations

Rarely do I discover a recording of a work that completely replaces my prior understanding of the piece, and becomes the “new favorite.” It’s happening now, with the 1957 Haydn Variations that is the b-side of the Karajan Schubert Unfinished I blogged about a couple of days ago.

The Philharmonia recordings from this era all have a special feel to them, not just in the sonics, but also the bouyancy of the music making. Brahms here is distinctly English, noble but not heavy or wrought wrought with Romantic Sehnsucht — the emotional longing that characterizes the German art of the age.

This is more like Elgar and Enigma, with each Variation a unique personality, with the original theme woven in and around it, in a far more precise and elegant way here than in any of HvK’s three Berlin recordings, though prior to finding this Philharmonia version I favored the 1976. In Variation VI, there is Dennis Brain soaring above the orchestra, propelling the music forward. How much of this is melodic (and instrumental) clarity we owe to Walter Legge’s engineering magicianship one cannot say. But that this 54 year old piece of plastic is producing such glorious noise is truly a wonder. (By comparison, Barbirolli in Vienna, a decade later, sounds overbearing and heavy…in the Sofiensaal!)

HvK and the Philharmonia give us an absolutely glorious, joyous final Variation — a completely different experience than it become under him in Berlin, where drama and Sehnsucht took over. I cannot help imagine that the British band is channeling Elgar and Enigma and the final Variation there: Not a finale, but a some of the parts.