Wednesday, April 12, 2017

More Elgar from SOMM Recordings

Last October this site ran an article about a four-CD album released by SOMM Recordings entitled Elgar Remastered. At the time I suggested that the collection would probably have more appeal to audiophiles interested in the prodigious efforts of audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr than to those more concerned with exposure to different approaches to interpretations of Elgar’s music. At the end of last week, SOMM added another CD to their efforts, this one entitled Elgar Rediscovered. The album cover describes the content as follows:
An anthology of forgotten recordings including the first issue of Elgar’s recording of his Elegy with the BBCSO [BBC Symphony Orchestra]
Once again this is a recording that is likely to have limited interest. The high points come from performances by two violinists, Albert Sammons and Alfredo Campoli, both of whom took great interest in performing and recording Elgar’s music. Sammons performed the first complete recording of Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto, which was made for Columbia in 1929 with Henry Wood conducting the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Elgar was not involved because of his contractual relationship with HMV. He had written the concerto for Fritz Kreisler, and HMV had hoped to record his conducting a performance with Kreisler. However Kreisler resisted; and, in an article for Gramophone, Alan Sanders suggested the Kreisler may not have thought very much of Elgar as a conductor. As those familiar with the nine-CD set now being distributed by Warner Classics, HMV eventually made a recording with Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist.

HMV had actually made an abbreviated recording in December of 1916 with violinist Marie Hall conducted by Elgar. This involved extensive cuts that would get the concerto to fit on the four sides of two twelve-inch 78 RPM discs. Columbia followed suit that same year with their own two-disc release of Sammons performing with Henry Wood conducting. (In both cases the orchestra was not identified.) That abbreviated version is the most extensive account on the Elgar Rediscovered release, and the accompanying booklet includes Andrew Keener’s enumeration of the cuts taken in both the Columbia and HMV versions.

Personally, I feel that all of this effort is not particularly fair to Sammons (not to mention Elgar). The cuts do considerable disservice to the overall flow of the concerto; and it is unclear how much any decisions about tempo come from the performers, rather than from the recording engineers. Fortunately, Sammons is given a much better shake in the 1940 recording of the Opus 12 “Salut d’Amour,” in which he is accompanied by Gerald Moore at the piano. The same can be said of the 1931 recording of Campoli playing the Opus 17 “La Capricieuse” with pianist Harold Pedlar. Both of these recordings allow the listener to appreciate the quality of the respective soloist’s technique, as well as the overall charms of the music itself.

The low points on this new release all involve vocal performance, both choral and solo. This may, again, have been a matter of conflicting priorities between performers and recording engineers. Thus, while there may be a certain historical value in John Barbirolli having recorded “Where corals lie” (from the Opus 37 Sea Pictures) with Dutch mezzo Maartje Offers, the result is unlikely to tear Elgar lovers away from the far better engineered recording that Barbirolli made with the London Symphony Orchestra and Janet Baker for EMI in 1965.

The one real gem is the premiere recording of the HMV Abbey Road session on April 11, 1933 at which the Opus 58 “Elegy” was recorded (the one singled out on the cover of the album). This definitely provides as good an account of Elgar’s expressiveness as a conductor as one could hope to get. Furthermore, Elgar seemed to have no trouble getting it to fit on a single 78 RPM side without compromising his approach to tempo.

However, according to the booklet notes by John Knowles, Elgar had informed HMV that he wanted to have another recording session for the “Elegy;” and that turned out to be the last recording that Elgar ever made (on August 29, 1933 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra). That latter recording is the one that was selected for the 9-CD anthology, while the BBCSO session was never released until now. We may never know why Elgar was not contented with his BBCSO session, but the result of that session is definitely the high point of Elgar Rediscovered.

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