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:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa