ELGAR Ecce sacerdos magnus: Music for chorus and orchestra
Given the prevalence of, and admiration for, Elgar’s three large-scale oratorios and The Music Makers, it is good to hear a new recording of some of Elgar’s shorter and by no means less characteristic works for chorus and orchestra, here given by a bright-sounding and committed Brighton Festival Chorus (with commendable clear diction) and BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. Dedicated to his old friend, Hubert Leicester, choirmaster of St George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester, the early motet Ecce sacerdos magnus was composed for a visit to the church of the Bishop of Birmingham in October 1888. This is a quite a rarity, and, as Andrew Neill states in his informative notes, it has an interesting connection with the Benedictus from Haydn’s Harmoniemesse which, Neill suggests, was quite possibly sung at the Mass. Its musical connection with Elgar’s motet is virtually impossible to discern in today’s performance practice of Haydn, but a much earlier performance with a far more moderate tempo, helpfully supplied on this CD by the Munich Cathedral Choir of 1949, allows us to hear a perceptible relationship.
The somewhat neglected setting of Longfellow’s Spanish Serenade of 1892 (full of the composer’s melodic thumbprints – especially the wonderfully wistful ‘She sleeps’) looks forward to The Wand of Youth as do the delightfully entertaining orchestral part-songs of Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands (1895). These works, along with the Te Deum and Benedictus of 1897, performed here with affection and subtlety, remind us of the richness of this first phase of Elgar’s style and of their importance in the formation of Caractacus and the Enigma Variations at the end of the century.
The offertory anthem for George V’s Coronation of 1911, O hearken thou, has pathos and fine control in the sustaining of the long lines. The two larger orchestral anthems, Great is the Lord, a setting of Psalm 48 (1912), and Give unto the Lord, a setting of Psalm 29 (1914), are performed as if, more appropriately, they were mini-oratorios in that they rightly require the same vivid contrasts from the performers as Elgar’s dramatic oratorical canvases (which are ultimately operas manqués).