ELGAR The Black Knight
The Black Knight is a large-scale, red-blooded choral setting of Longfellow’s translation of a German poem by Ludwig Uhland. Elgar completed it in 1893 and it provided him with his first big success – especially in the Midlands, where it was gratefully taken up by many choral societies. The text tells of a sinister, unnamed “Prince of mighty sway”, whose appearance at the King’s court during the feast of Pentecost has disastrous consequences. Elgar’s score boasts much attractive invention, some of it strikingly eloquent and prescient of greater offerings to come: for example, towards the end of track 8 (the section beginning with “Each the father’s breast embraces”), Elgar’s touching inspiration momentarily seems to look forward to “Nimrod” and even the First Symphony’s sublime slow movement. The choral writing is always effective, the orchestration already vivid and assured. Richard Hickox and his combined London Symphony forces are dab hands at this kind of fare and their new performance is, on the whole, superior to Sir Charles Groves’s slightly bluffer, pioneering Liverpool account. I also prefer the greater bloom and spaciousness of the Chandos recording over Groves’s 1984 production.
Similarly, in the tuneful, vernally fresh Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands (given here with the orchestral accompaniment Elgar supplied in 1896), Hickox and his colleagues respond with commendable spirit and pleasing polish. There’s plenty of affection on show as well: witness Hickox’s winsome shaping of the sweetly innocent “Lullaby” (track 12) and the joyous swagger of the concluding “The Marksmen” (track 15). Truth to tell, in matters of interpretation I found little to choose between this new Chandos account and the rival EMI version from Norman Del Mar. Perhaps the latter’s Bournemouth Symphony Chorus is not as finely-honed an instrument as Hickox’s group; both conductors are, needless to say, immensely sympathetic Elgarians. All told, an enticing coupling.'