Monday, October 10, 2016

SOMM Recordings Releases a New Compilation of Performances by Elgar

At the end of last month, SOMM Recordings released a four-CD album entitled Elgar Remastered. Those with a particular interest in historical recordings of Edward Elgar conducting his own music probably know that, between 1992 and 1993, EMI Records remastered all of the electrical recordings made of Elgar’s performances. These were released in a series of three three-CD albums, which are now available as a single nine-CD set from Warner Classics. The new album draws upon some of the HMV recordings that were included in the EMI release, but it also includes pressings from Elgar’s personal library. These were provided to audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr by Arthur Reynolds, Chairman of the North America Branch of the Elgar Society. Furthermore, Spahr was interested not only in remastering but also in stereophonic reconstruction. Thus, while much of the content overlaps the EMI releases, the stereophonic renderings are definitely new.

The results are likely to be of great interest to those who are technologically inclined. Such individuals will probably enjoy the 27-page accompanying booklet as much as the recordings themselves. Spahr has written an extensive essay about the efforts to create these recordings, and that essay is complemented by a scholarly account of the Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor by Terry King. However, curious listeners should not get their hopes too high. For one thing two of the four CDs consist entirely of previously unissued alternative takes, all of which are monophonic. Similarly, the second CD consists entirely of alternative takes of the cello concerto, only some of which have been reconstructed in stereo. In other words all of the major stereophonic results are confined to the first CD, and two of them are coupled with their original monophonic versions to provide the listener with a basis for comparison.

All of this adds up to a package that is likely to have far more appeal to audiophiles than to those whose highest priority is just having clarity in the experience of listening to music. Some of those listeners may be interested in the alternative takes. However, while alternative takes of jazz sessions sometimes provide valuable glimpses into risks taken during improvisation that did not turn out as planned, the Elgar recordings all involved playing from the score, as it were. If there were some chances taken with trying out alternative approaches to expression, they are not particularly evident in this collection.

There is, however, one item from Elgar’s private collection that may raise an eyebrow or two. This is a recording made on August 20, 1928 of Beatrice Harrison (the soloist in the recording of Opus 85) playing the Adagio movement from the cello concerto with piano accompaniment. However, this is less about the chamber music setting than it is about the pianist, Her Royal Highness Princess Victoria! Elgar would have been 71 when this recording was made, and he had been Master of the King’s Music since May 13, 1924. This recording may well have been made for the King’s pleasure, rather than for Elgar’s; but there is no disputing its novelty value!

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