Elgar Sea Pictures. Pageant of Empire

Elgar premiere to catch the ear but Gurney and Hurd are the real finds

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Elgar Sea Pictures. Pageant of Empire

  • Pageant of Empire, Shakespeare's kingdom
  • Pageant of Empire, Sailing westward
  • Pageant of Empire, The heart of Canada
  • Pageant of Empire, The blue mountains
  • Pageant of Empire, The islands
  • Pageant of Empire, Merchant adventurers
  • Pageant of Empire, The immortal legions
  • (The) Pipes of Pan
  • (The) River
  • Sea Pictures
  • Lights Out
  • Shore Leave

Elgar devotees will doubtless already be aware of Konrad Jarnot’s exemplary debut recording of Sea Pictures in its version for baritone (Channel Classics, 4/08). By comparison, this first recording of its orchestral counterpart proves a tad underwhelming: Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra tender reliable rather than especially imaginative support, and although Roderick Williams cuts as commandingly articulate a figure as ever, for once he sounds less than caught up by proceedings, and the performance as a whole just misses out on the last touch of rapture, charm and arresting drama. Moreover, in the opening “Sea Slumber-Song”, the microphones pick up rather too much in the way of distracting sibilance.

Sea Pictures is preceded by more Elgar: two songs (the winsome “The Pipes of Pan” and altogether more theatrical “The River”, from 1899 and 1910 respectively), as well as seven numbers from the flag-waving entertainment Pageant of Empire, written for the 1924-25 Wembley Exhibition. In the latter, Martin Yates orchestrated all but the last song (“The Immortal Legions” is heard in the composer’s own scoring) and deserves plaudits for his idiomatic efforts. Dutton’s demonstration-worthy sound is a further bonus.

Elsewhere, Jeremy Dibble does a terrific job orchestrating Ivor Gurney’s Lights Out (1918-25), six settings of words by Edward Thomas (who was killed in the trenches in 1917); the title song in particular distils a fragrant beauty that will haunt you for days. Michael Hurd (1928-2006) was another gifted figure from Gloucestershire, his extensive output awaiting proper investigation. The strongly approachable and immaculately crafted 1962 cycle Shore Leave sets five poems from Charles Causley’s 1960 collection Union Street. First sung by the tenor Wilfred Brown in February 1963, this touching work was revived by Roderick Williams at the 1998 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival – and he repeats that success here.

Minor reservations notwithstanding, this remains an enjoyable programme, masterminded and extensively annotated by the indefatigable Lewis Foreman.

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