Civic Fanfare … National Anthem [arr. Elgar]
The Spirit of England, Op.80
Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Emily Magee (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 7 November, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
This well-chosen selection of Elgar’s music, in the year of the 150th-anniversary of his birth, brought a first half of music that finds the composer at less than ‘great’ and a second that combined two of his undoubted masterpieces. Mark Elder’s Elgar credentials ensured that the ‘lesser’ works were heard in the most favourable light.
Civic Fanfare was composed for a Mayoral procession to enter Hereford Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival of 1927. The work serves its purpose well enough in terms of ceremony and led here, as it did then, to Elgar’s inflated version of the ‘our’ National Anthem; large chorus and orchestra, soprano solo, and all the verses! Most of the audience stood but we probably didn’t need to – the orchestra’s violinists didn’t – even though HRH The Duke of Kent was part of the audience, sitting in the Stalls.
Nursery Suite continues the Royal connection, it being written in 1930 at the request of Fred Gaisberg of HMV and inspired by “the charming group – H.R.H. The Duchess of York and the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose”. Making use of earlier material, Elgar here distils his style, not losing his wistful side, and Elder and the LPO were alive to the music’s tenderness and, when it occurs, ebullience. There was some wonderfully quiet playing, and a couple of instances when the brass was just a little edgy. The written-in rubato of ‘The Serious Doll’ was somewhat self-conscious (lovely flute-playing though) and ‘The Wagon (Passes)’ – used by Anthony Payne for the dying embers of his realisation of Elgar’s Third Symphony – enjoyed a magical fade-out. That is not the end, though – maybe it should be – for while ‘The Merry Doll’ suggests Vaudeville entertainment and ‘Dreaming’ is ethereal, ‘Envoy (Coda)’, with its elaborate violin cadenza, seems, dare one say it, impertinent enough to intrude on the dusky-lit Wand of Youth-revisited score that Elgar otherwise created.
While these miniatures seem to evoke an old man’s nostalgia, as well as struggling (a little) to emulate the sheer quality of earlier achievements in similar vein (not least The Wand of Youth), then “The Spirit of England” (first heard complete in 1917) seems no more than dutiful and mostly uninspired. When the best music comes unashamedly from “The Dream of Gerontius” (1900) then something is wrong. Otherwise, despite a well-prepared and dedicated performance – the London Philharmonic Choir giving its all and Emily Magee, if too operatic (as she had been in the National Anthem), contributing, along with the orchestra, under Elder’s assured direction, a best-shot rendition – the work over 30 minutes rarely rose above the mundane. For its World War I time, setting Laurence Binyon (September 1914), the music seems trapped in for-now succour without offering much consolation or motivation, and while the odd inspired moment does come along (a nobilmente refrain, and the eerie slow march and transcendental climax of ‘For the Fallen’, the last movement) one senses Elgar going through the motions ‘in time of war’.
If nothing else, the opportunity to hear “The Spirit of England” set into greater relief the masterpiece-status of Introduction and Allegro and Enigma Variations. The former, Elder’s use of antiphonal violins and cellos and basses pointing north by north-west coming into its own, was especially impressive: intense, fiery and carefree, a natural ebb and flow established and intensified in the “devil of a fugue”. If Enigma’s familiarity seemed to grant it the least rehearsal time, there was no contempt, Elder and the orchestra absolutely at-one with the work with no need to exaggerate or be too ‘knowing’ about, ‘Nimrod’ spacious but not indulged or taken out of context. In particular Elder found much expression in Variation XIII (the one in which Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is supposedly quoted from. But could it be Schumann’s Piano Concerto? Another enigma!) The programme-book thoughtfully reproduced images of Elgar’s “friends pictured within”. The electronic organ came through well-enough; and it was good to see a portion of the Royal Festival Hall’s pipe-instrument on display, which seems to suggest that recent rumours about its ongoing non-functionality are mere gossip.