Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Op.39 – No.1 in D; No.2 in A minor; No.3 in C minor; No.4 in G; No.5 in C
Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded 4 & 5 and 7 & 9 October 2011 in MediaCity UK, Salford, England
CHANDOS CHAN 10709
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Not surprisingly, although it makes for less than satisfactory programming, the Cello Concerto is placed first. It’s best to begin this Chandos Elgar collection with the Introduction and Allegro, here given a bracing and expressive performance. Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic’s strings donate the music time to be shapely, the tempos naturally propelling the music along, either in terms of reflection or in the Allegro part of the score. There are numerous exquisite turns of phrase, savoured by the musicians, not least the passage between 4’25” and 4’35”, a moment of rapt contemplation during “the devil of a fugue” (the composer’s description). Recorded with clarity and bloom, and a natural sense of perspective (the string quartet emerging organically from the ensemble), this is a notable account of a masterpiece, one of the few that Elgar himself did not record.
The full-orchestra pieces are slightly less successful. One reason is the somewhat edgy and bright sound that MediaCity (the BBC Philharmonic’s new home) seems to impart to the fullest complement of players when addressing fortissimo passages (the estimable recording engineer Stephen Rinker has no doubt done a very faithful job in capturing this auditorium’s acoustic particulars).
Following the Elegy (also for strings), very sensitively performed, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches lack some fullness of tone and bass foundation as well as tending towards noisiness. It’s good to have the set complete, though, Davis giving us five ‘quick marches’ with blissful trios, many fine and stirring tunes to be heard, and a purely personal reaction reports that the one now commonly known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is the least-good of the five; the trio-melody of No.4 is infinitely finer (and in this account excellently crisp and assertive timpani detail informs the March’s proud outer sections). The other Marches do not deserve their relative neglect; whether the surreptitious scurrying of No.2, the driving force of No.3 or the rather ‘nouveau’ swing of No.5, which from 1930 followed No.4 after more than twenty years. Each has a trio section of tuneful inventiveness that stays happily in the memory. Andrew Davis brings liveliness and affection to these robust and rousing miniatures, only overplaying his hand with an excessive rallentando and tenuto at 4’50” when No.3’s trio returns in imperialistic glory.
As for the ubiquitous Cello Concerto, Paul Watkins’s contribution to the booklet reads well: he has re-studied the score in depth and realises “how intimately the solo cello line is linked to the orchestra throughout.” Certainly there is a palpable rapport between Watkins and the Philharmonic, Andrew Davis securing a spot-on and responsive accompaniment. Perhaps the ambient sound makes Watkins seem closer than he is (or that his cello has a larger image than it might) but his playing tends to dominate, the orchestra a little recessed at times making the smallest detail not as clear or as complementary as ideal. The performance is good and wholesome but perhaps does not alter existing recommendations – mine would probably be Janos Starker’s with Leonard Slatkin conducting; a stoical, unvarnished version. Watkins begins boldly and there is no lack of feeling later, the second movement as deft and dynamic as one could wish for. The slow movement doesn’t quite touch the heart as it can, though, and the variety of the finale is finely judged.
The CD’s cover is a pleasure in itself: a London street-scene from 1922 (just a few years after the Cello Concerto was completed) that Elgar would have known (when there), featuring the Bank of England and replete with pedestrians, omnibuses and automobiles.