I can do no better than quote from the front cover: “Test pressings from Elgar’s private library with STEREO reconstructions and NEW PERFORMANCES of the Cello Concerto & Symphony No.1”. I should now add that the booklet is superbly exhaustive in its documentation – dates, matrix numbers, musicians, and the like – and includes a comprehensive essay from Lani Spahr, the audio-restoration engineer for this project, which makes for fascinating and enlightening reading.
There is also an article by Terry King entitled “Recording the Cello Concerto”, which is in regard to Elgar’s popular opus, in which King compares the composer and Beatrice Harrison’s two versions, from 1919-20 and from 1928, the latter included here as “published version stereo”.
For the latter that the image is left of centre and some lower frequencies are a little contaminated tonally is of little concern, for generally there is a freshness to the sound that is attractive, conveying well Harrison’s noble account of the solo part. That said the image changes, so too the sound, for the better, and no doubt coincides with changes of 78rpm sides.
As Spahr himself asks, “What exactly do we have here?”. His own answers are: “Stereo? Accidental Stereo? Binaural? Out of phase mono?”. As he says, these questions will be responded to differently by each one of us.
The first CD continues with Cockaigne (I love this piece!), a cracking performance with the 1933 BBC Symphony Orchestra under the composer that becomes ‘stereo’ a few seconds short of nine minutes, and does so to striking effect, with the mono reproduction up until then also very good. A similar mono-to-stereo hike appears in the Prelude to The Kingdom (a passionate and wondrous account with the BBCSO), sounding tremendous in mono and wider if a little watery in ‘stereo’. Lighter fare follows, also heard in width, with the New Symphony Orchestra (which seems to have doubled as the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, and lacking a little something in comparison with the LSO and BBCSO) such as Rosemary, May Song and Serenade Lyrique. The disc concludes with a grandiose chorus-and-orchestra arrangement (I assume by Elgar, he’s conducting) of William Croft’s ‘O God our help in ages past’ – as high, wide and handsome as you like!
CD2 is Cello Concerto-centric, with previously unissued takes, further ‘stereo’ examples, then the first three movements in mono followed by an acoustic (and abridged) version of those movements (the 1919-20 recording). Finally, the Adagio is taken from a “private disc” that was made by HMV on 20 August 1928 for Princess Victoria, and it is Her Royal Highness that plays the piano to replace the orchestra. This extended (75-minute) sequence is rewarding if swallowed whole.
CDs 3 and 4 are both devoted to “previously unissued mono alternative takes”. Included is the First Symphony “complete with alternative takes”. I haven’t compared with other transfers of the ‘official’ recording (Naxos’s excellent one, for example). I just enjoyed (if with my ears flapping) this magnificent and complex work from Spahr’s new transfer; and it comes across just fine, the LSO in November 1930 responding with dedication and dynamism to the composer’s passionate and flexible conducting. Throughout the Symphony’s (here) 47 minutes I was unaware of side-breaks or insertions (although surface noise is changeable and there is a tempo jolt at 3’57” in the Finale), the music overall flowing with a stream of emotional consciousness in many different guises.
The remainder of disc 3 is snippets, part of the Second Symphony’s Scherzo, four extracts from the Violin Concerto (in Yehudi Menuhin’s famous and affecting version, about eighteen minutes’ worth) and three Variations (V, VI & VII) from Enigma, none of them being ‘Nimrod’.
The final disc is of short pieces and many delights, including quite a lot of the Wand of Youth music. Opening is a stirring account of the ‘Triumphal March’ from Caractacus, with one of those blossoming ‘big’ tunes in the centre that William Walton would later emulate for ceremonial and filmic honours. The festivities close with Elgar’s arrangement of ‘God save the King’, chorus and orchestra in extravagance.
But I made a point of saving tracks 2 and 3 until last: Lawrance Collingwood (1887-1982), conductor and record producer, leading the LSO in two pieces “relayed by Telephone Office lines to Elgar in South Bank Nursing Home, Worcester” on 22 January 1934 from Abbey Road Studio No.1. Elgar would die a month later. I wonder how the composer greeted the ‘Woodland Interlude’ from Caractacus and especially Dream Children No.1, which is poignant at the best of times. Both performances are shapely and sensitive, and come across the decades with immediacy. To cheer myself up I returned to Cockaigne, the London that Elgar knew.
Congratulations to all concerned, especially Lani Spahr, for this intriguing and invaluable issue, for which Elgarians everywhere have much cause to celebrate.