double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...; Elgar: The Black Knight; Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9436)
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The Independent Culture
The quantum leap of faith that Elgar's music makes towards the end of the 1890s is sometimes hard to take in. And yet, in early works such as The Black Knight, you feel him, you feel the music, pulling so hard at the constraints of inexperience that you half expect revelations. It's all there in embryo, the best of Elgar waiting impatiently to happen. There's a passage in this "choral symphony" after Longfellow - the arrival of guests at the King's fateful banquet - that is a brief but wonderful example of the composer's early flowering - a rich, lyric strain of music that bespeaks a darker pathos. The ensuing "tableau" (so redolent of - yet nothing like so adventurous as - Mahler's Das klagende Lied) takes that strain, that feeling, still further, touching upon something very personal in Elgar as the King watches each of his children die. "Take me, too, the joyless father!" sings the chorus, in poignant anticipation of "Rescue him" from Gerontius. Gerontius is still a long way off, I hasten to add, but there is something about the atmosphere, the colour (intensified with the arrival of solo violin) of these pages, that draws one into the comparison.

The Black Knight may not amount to much, but it promises a great deal. The choral writing is as yet very primary but, even so, possessed of a rude vigour. The opening maestoso carries with it a confident, if somewhat starchy, Elgarian swagger, organ weighing in conspicuously (characteristically ripe Chandos sound) for the communal reprise. And, of course, there's a charming allegretto - all stiffened petticoats and hooped skirts - with a typically incongruous hint of espagnola in the mix (making it sound more, not less, English).

Elgar's postcards from Bavaria - a sequence of part-songs, dutiful settings of his wife Alice's ghastly poems (souvenirs of summer holidays in 1893 and 1894) - are familiar to us from the jolly orchestral suite he made of the catchiest three in 1897. And they are catchy, these chintzy miniatures. More love has gone into the settings than is merited, of course, but once beyond their terminal quaintness, that in itself is quite endearing. In the first of them, I swear I hear the Meistersinger apprentices merrily chanting "Midsummer Day! Midsummer Day!". But that's as close as we get to Bavaria. As ever, Hickox and his LSO forces communicate genuine enthusiasm for the material. "Thc Marksmen" - a winning finale - signs off in splendidly rowdy style. Elgar-lovers won't be waiting for my recommendation. ES

This is one of those discs that ought to come with a warning: "For the converted only". I can't imagine it making many new friends for Elgar, and the thought of it falling into German or French hands is enough to set any English Music-lover blushing uneasily. It isn't the performers' fault: apart from some slightly under-the-note pitching from the women's voices in "On the Alm" (Bavarian Highlands), singing and orchestral playing are accomplished and stylish, and Hickox makes what he can of the flashes of genuine Elgarian inspiration in The Black Knight.

The trouble is, those flashes are very rare. The choral writing in The Black Knight is startlingly unimaginative (can this really be the composer of Gerontius?), and although Elgar turns on his characteristic charm in the orchestral introductions to Scenes 3 and 4, on the whole scene-setting and mood-painting are wretchedly tame - did the young Elgar have so little feeling for the demonic, or even the creepy? Or was he afraid to show it?

Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands is at least a tad more robust, and the tunes are better. Even so, whatever your feelings about Bavarian folk- dancing, the original is preferable to polite Victorian imitations by some margin. The final dance, "The Marksmen" - with its half-hearty Landler rhythms and restrained cries of "Huzzah! the hit!" - conjures up horrid images of decorous, sexually segregated thigh-slapping, and clinking mugs of feebly frothing low-alcohol lager. No, the LSO don't seem to relish Alice Elgar's poetry - but who can blame them? SJ