ELGAR Cello Concerto; Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos 1-5
In the concert hall Paul Watkins has already shown himself to be an exemplary exponent of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, so it was a shrewd move on Chandos’s part to invite him into the studio to set down his abundantly communicative interpretation for posterity. Aided by outstandingly eloquent support from Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic, Watkins plays with consummate artistry, his golden-toned and technically flawless contribution striking a judicious balance between classical poise and unexaggerated depth of feeling that put me in mind of the great André Navarra on his classic 1957 recording with Sir John Barbirolli (Testament, 3/01). Pacing is spot-on throughout, the first movement lean and purposeful, the scherzo mercurial without being breathless, the sublime Adagio ideally flowing. Best of all is the finale, its main Allegro ma non troppo fairly twinkling with mischief, yet when the shadows begin to lengthen for the Poco più mosso at fig 66 or 6'05", Watkins and Davis manage to distil exactly the right degree of pathos. Moreover, that achingly intimate Lento reminiscence of the slow movement at four after fig 71 or 8'51" really does tug the emotions.
Durable rewards guaranteed, then, and the same certainly holds true for Davis’s dashingly articulate, meticulously observant and superbly musical handling of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. What a joy to hear No 1’s indestructible trio melody unfold with such heartwarming naturalness and spontaneity – and how perceptively Davis quarries the dark undertow of the magnificently defiant No 3 (that swaggering allargando at two after fig Q or 4'50" is brought off with genuine aplomb). No grumbles, either, with Davis’s sensitive conducting of the 1909 Elegy, which so touchingly mirrors Elgar’s sense of loss at the recent death of his dear friend, AJ Jaeger (aka ‘Nimrod’).
Only the Introduction and Allegro slightly underwhelms. Or is it just that Barbirolli has spoilt us for good in this music? Let me steer you in the direction of his thrillingly combustible 1956 Hallé account in particular (available from the Barbirolli Society), next to which this laudably disciplined newcomer sounds decidedly reserved. No matter: for the two main offerings alone every Elgarian should investigate this release, which has been engineered with resplendent realism in the BBC Philharmonic’s new Salford home.