ELGAR The Spirit of England BAX In Memoriam
Here’s another welcome helping of choral Elgar courtesy of Mark Elder and his Hallé forces, this time in the context of an imaginative programme with wartime associations. Composed between 1915 and 1917, The Spirit of England (settings of poems by Laurence Binyon) remains grievously underrated, and Elder’s thrusting urgency in the cantata’s outer movements (The Fourth of August’ and ‘For the Fallen’) contrasts strikingly with the more grandiloquent view adopted by Alexander Gibson on his memorably eloquent 1976 version (Chandos, 5/77). The latter also has the conspicuous advantage of Teresa Cahill – gloriously steady and golden in tone throughout – but Elder’s remains a stirring display nonetheless. It’s followed by a highly effective presentation of the 1916 melodrama A Voice in the Desert. Soprano Jennifer France is in radiant voice and narrator Joshua Ellicott’s refreshingly natural delivery of the English text most empathetic (his Lancashire accent made me stop and think about those many mill-town ‘pals’ who perished at the Front).
Next comes a sensitive realisation of the three numbers that comprise Elgar’s 1901 incidental score to the drama by George Moore and WB Yeats, Grania and Diarmid. The darkly magnificent Funeral March is an especially inspired creation, while the atmospheric horn call that launches the Introduction was picked up by Arnold Bax in his 1909 tone poem In the Faery Hills. Shaken to the core by the events of the 1916 Easter Uprising and the consequent execution of Pádraig Pearse, Bax responded with a number of works, among them this impressive In memoriam, the full-score manuscript of which came to light only in 1993. Listen out for the ravishing B major tune that Bax recycled three decades later in his music for David Lean’s big-screen adaptation of Oliver Twist. Elder’s deeply felt account all but matches the slumbering intensity of Vernon Handley’s distinguished premiere recording with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos, 7/99).
Complete with superior production values, exhaustive booklet-notes and full texts, this stimulating collection deserves every success.