Elgar: Orchestral Works (CD review)

Jacqueline du Pre, Janet Baker; Allegri String Quartet; Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia of London. EMI 3 67918 2 (5-disc set)

There is no doubt that Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) was one of the grand masters among Elgar interpreters. There is also no doubt that it’s good to have all of this conductor’s EMI stereo recordings collected together in a single place. The folks at EMI have provided all of Barbirolli’s Elgar material from six separate discs in a low-priced, five-disc box set, which is a remarkable bargain.

The recordings include Sir Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Introduction and Allegro, Elegy, Sospiri, Falstaff, Cockaigne, Froissart, Enigma Variations, Pomp & Circumstance Marches Nos. 1-5, Serenade in E minor, Sea Pictures, and Cello Concerto. Yes, it is a quite a collection.

Now, given that each of the works has probably never seen a more authoritative performance and that the playing is practically flawless, you can see the value of the set. Personally, I find the string music with the Sinfonia of London, the Sea Pictures with Janet Baker, and the Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pre topping the charts, but I would not want to be without the other renditions as well. Barbirolli conducts the two big symphonies rather broadly, but you can hear his affection for the pieces in every note.

No one has really ever topped the 1965 performance of the Cello Concerto by young cellist Jacqueline du Pre and Sir John, though. A booklet note suggests that people initially criticized Ms. du Pre for having too much spirit, too much energy, in her interpretation, but Sir John, one of the world’s première Elgarians, defended her, saying that such exuberance was necessary in the young; besides, Elgar himself once remarked years earlier that he preferred vigorous readings of his works because “I am not an austere man.”

The first and forth movements of the Concerto seem particularly noteworthy for their wistful, nostalgic look back at a calmer, more tranquil world before the Great War, and it is here that no one can accuse du Pre of being too spirited; she is, in fact, quite at peace with the world in a heartfelt performance that commands one’s respect from start to finish. Then, the Sea Pictures, sung by Janet Baker, are more like the Elgar of old, having been written over twenty years earlier, sounding in part, like “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” similar in mood to his pomp-and-ceremony days. The addition of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture in this set is icing on the cake, a wonderfully evocative, colorful, and affectionate orchestral description of Victorian London.

It’s true that several other conductors, notably Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) and Vernon Handley (EMI), have also recorded excellent performances of many of these works, yet it is Barbirolli who holds sway on so many of them that to have his recordings together in one box is priceless.

The sound, recorded between 1962 and 1966 with the three orchestral ensembles listed above, varies only slightly, from a tad heavy to a tad thin. But most of it comes off quite realistically, revealing some of EMI’s best sound from one of the company’s best recording periods (the Sixties and Seventies were good years for EMI audio engineers). The set is a no-brainer, and I hold it in my highest regard.

To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click here:


JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa