ELGAR The Music Makers. The Spirit of England (Davis)
Both soloist and conductor have already given us notable versions of The Music Makers – for Naxos (12/06) and Teldec/Warner (2/95) respectively – but there’s a wholly idiomatic sensibility, collaborative zeal and unity of vision that mark out this sumptuously engineered Chandos newcomer as something rather special. Certainly, Sarah Connolly’s delivery of the closing lines (‘Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers / And a singer who sings no more’) distils an aching intimacy not matched since Janet Baker’s sublime contribution on Boult’s recording (EMI/Warner, 5/67) – and what reserves of tender compassion she brings to ‘But on one man’s soul it has broken / A light that doth not depart’ (track 6, from 1'12"), where the strains of ‘Nimrod’ pay moving reminiscence to Elgar’s beloved friend and tireless champion, August Jaeger. Likewise, Andrew Davis’s gloriously pliant conducting evinces total conviction. To hear him and his painstakingly prepared BBC forces at their raptly intuitive best, listen from 1'32" on track 8 (‘O men! It must ever be / That we dwell, in our dreaming and signing, / A little apart from ye’) with its devastatingly poignant intertwining of themes from Enigma, the Violin Concerto and The Apostles. Make no mistake, anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the fears, hopes and dreams that stalk this deeply vulnerable, touchingly autobiographical creation will derive copious rewards here.
Until now The Spirit of England (settings from 1915 17 of three poems by Laurence Binyon) has only ever been recorded in its entirety with a soprano soloist. However, Elgar also sanctioned the use of a tenor, and Andrew Staples makes an ardent showing in another terrific display under Davis’s sympathetic lead. Even more than Mark Elder (Hallé, 3/17), Davis drives an arrestingly purposeful course through both outer movements (‘The Fourth of August’ and ‘For the Fallen’), while at the same time extracting every ounce of quiet resolve and dignity from the cantata’s centrepiece (‘To Women’). It’s an uncommonly eloquent performance in every respect, though I do retain a particularly soft spot for Alexander Gibson’s distinguished 1976 version with Teresa Cahill a memorably assured soloist (originally made for RCA, 5/77, and since reissued on Chandos).
Released to coincide with the centenary of Armistice Day, this meaty choral pairing has already given me a lot of pleasure and earns the warmest plaudits.