A sumptuously recorded new Elgar collection which is impressive throughout.
Graham Rogers 2012
Chandos offers a generous 75-minute helping of Elgar's best-loved orchestral works in this new album. Elgar specialist Sir Andrew Davis has recorded most of these pieces at least once before – but this collection benefits from his by-now vastly experienced wisdom in the field, and the sumptuously recorded (in studio) BBC Philharmonic on top form.
The meatiest work here is the brooding Cello Concerto from 1919 – the last major piece Elgar completed. Paul Watkins is a sensitive soloist, and he and Davis clearly have a special rapport, presumably dating back to the years they worked together at the BBC Symphony Orchestra as, respectively, Principal Cellist and Chief Conductor. The melancholic opening bars are imbued with a plaintiveness that permeates the whole performance.
Following the magically hushed orchestral entrance, the fateful tread of the tutti main theme is powerfully portentous. Watkins is brilliantly nimble-fingered in the scampering scherzo, displaying delightfully Mendelssohn-ian charm; his achingly sweet, song-like tone in the soulful Adagio is utterly mesmeric. This is not a heart-on-sleeve account of the concerto, in the manner of the famous Jacqueline du Pré recording with Barbirolli (EMI, 1965); but what it lacks in extrovert drama it makes up for with intensity and considered fidelity to the score.
The BBC Philharmonic strings are richly full-blooded and rhythmically taught in the Introduction and Allegro. There is a wonderful ebb and flow to the lighter passages, which radiate warmth and geniality, but it is let down slightly by the emotional coolness of the big-boned moments. By contrast, the miniature Elegy, also for strings, is entrancingly tender.
Davis has conducted the first Pomp and Circumstance March many a time at the Last Night of the Proms. This latest studio version may be missing the unbridled exuberance of those occasions, but it compensates with remarkable nuance and clarity – every detail of Elgar's orchestration can be heard in all its glory. And Davis gets the famous “Land of Hope and Glory” theme just right: noble and majestic, but with a fluidity that avoids overblown pomposity. With the four other Marches equally impressive, all in all this is an excellent collection.