Elgar’s Sea Pictures dates from the very end of the nineteenth-century, written at Birchwood Lodge in Herefordshire, a second home which the composer rented as a retreat. Originally written for soprano accompanied by piano, the settings were re-written for contralto and orchestra at Clara Butt's request. She gave the revision’s first performance in November 1899 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Elgar conducting and with Butt dressed as a mermaid. Coming after the recent success of Enigma Variations, this was a happy period for Elgar.
When the famous Janet Baker recording with Barbirolli was released in 1965, the music’s Victorian genesis seemed old-fashioned to some and the texts somewhat ludicrous. The passage of time has been kinder to the work than that. Sea Pictures is performed and recorded regularly, even by a baritone, with very fine singing from Roderick Williams.
From the opening of ‘Sea Slumber Song’, it is clear that Alice Coote has a distinctive view of the music. Her covered tone conveys an impression that the silence of the scene is not to be disturbed and is gripping from the outset. ‘In Haven’, with words by Alice Elgar, is equally successful, Coote producing beautiful sounds, though Baker and Barbirolli are even more expansive, and to good effect. ‘Sabbath Morning’ (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) gets a reading of vigour. The much-loved ‘Where Corals Lie’ is notable in its effect of time standing still. The final song, ‘The Swimmer’, has plenty of energy. This fine and individual account, with Coote accompanied faithfully and sensitively by Elder and the Hallé, is reasonably well-recorded, the voice sounding a little boxed in and not expanding sufficiently. However, the performance deserves to sit alongside Baker-Barbirolli and Gladys Ripley-George Weldon.
After the success of Carillon, recitation with orchestra, written as a tribute to the Belgians who were overrun by the Germans at the start of the First World War, Elgar was asked to write a tribute to Poland. In Polonia, he incorporates quotations from the country’s indigenous melodies, not least the National Anthem, and also from music by Chopin and Paderewski. Elgar dedicated Polonia to the latter. Mark Elder and the Hallé give a disciplined account that is nicely proportioned and with the important organ part clear: altogether splendid.
The first four Pomp and Circumstance Marches date from 1901 to 1907. The Fifth is a product of Elgar's old age dating from 1930 if sounding just as youthful and energetic. The popular First and Fourth come over well in Elder's controlled conducting if without the last ounce of swagger that Boult, Barbirolli and Andrew Davis bring to them. The Second and Third react well to the Hallé's neat and light approach, bringing out the music’s dapper aspect amongst their darker quality. The more upbeat Fifth gets a likeable presentation and the sound-quality is expansive and clear.
This is a welcome release in Mark Elder and the Hallé's Elgar series. The substantial booklet includes the texts for Sea Pictures and a first-rate note by the late Michael Kennedy.