RECORDS / Pastoralism, poignancy and pomp: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on tub-thumping Elgar and a hit by Hugh Wood

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ELGAR: Caractacus. Severn Suite Soloists, LSO and Chorus / Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9156/7: two CDs)

ALMOST every great composer has left works that ought to be labelled 'for enthusiasts only'. Is Caractacus one of them? There are strong, rounded Elgarian things here, and the 'Woodland Interlude' is one of the loveliest of Elgar's spirit-of-place miniatures. Along with these come Elgar's Druids, tripping politely in hooped skirts and whalebone corsets, or the unintended comedy of Caractacus's 'Leap to the Light' - Wagner meets the Floral Dance.

Dipping into it becomes a more attractive prospect when you have a recording like this to hand. Hickox is a persuasive Elgarian, even if I sometimes suspected that he relishes the pastoralism more than the pomp. David Wilson- Johnson brings as much dignity and poignancy as the title role can bear and Arthur Davies is an ardent Orbin. The piece is presented with a sustained sweep that even manages a decent show of conviction at the end. It will be harder to bury Caractacus after this. SJ

THE BRITS get the best tune, of course: an absolute corker which Elgar prudently rations until the big finish. Then it's a nationalistic Meistersinger-like pay-off which spares no one's blushes. Best not to listen to the words - every line an embarrassment, though you'd think it was Shakespeare from the care and enthusiasm of Elgar's setting. His love duet may lack ecstasy (Wagner's manner but not yet his potency), the heroics may creak a little - but still you wonder about the opera he never wrote and still you revel in the inimitable opulence of the combined choral and orchestral sound.

Text notwithstanding, Caractacus is more than just promise. The level of invention and inspiration does not portend The Dream of Gerontius, which came next, but there are cherishable episodes, not least among those for orchestra. His 'Woodland Interlude' is the kind of Elgar you've heard before, even if you know you haven't: the chords and colours are as quaint, as familiar as old-English fragrances; then there's the March, more royal than Roman but hinting at something alien in its twirling trumpet and glockenspiel flourishes. The burgeoning trio tune is an especially fine specimen, a subtle presence throughout the piece but only here a fully-fledged nobilmente.

Richard Hickox directs a sterling performance, tiptoeing through the Druids' woodland frolics, thumping the tub vigorously in the big choral paeans. The chorus excels, the soloists remain staunch in the face of textual adversity. And where Caractacus looks forward, the Severn Suite looks back. Either way, it's green and pleasant music. ES

WOOD: Piano Concerto

Joanna MacGregor, BBC SO / Davis

(Collins 20th Century Plus 20072)

THE MORE I listen to Hugh Wood's Piano Concerto, the more defiant it sounds. It isn't just that the mixture of unapologetic serialism and the nightclub sweetness of 'Sweet Lorraine' can sound like an evocation of musical London in those currently maligned 1960s; it's that in doing so he reminds us how much more melodious popular and serious music could be in the days before minimalism and rap. I'm not sure yet what the finale adds to the dance and pensive poetry of the first two movements, though its not-quite-apotheosis is a treasurable moment.

There are two personalities here - the composer and the performer and dedicatee, Joanna MacGregor. The eclecticism, energy, the delight in difficult oil-and-vinegar mixtures are hers as well as Wood's - few 20th-century concertos can be so well suited to the musical character of their dedicatee. Once again Collins have shown that they have the keenest nose for the really interesting new British music. SJ

HUGH WOOD's swinging concerto seems set for a long stay in the 'new music' pop charts. It has been a hit for almost two years now. So far I've not heard a cover version: the piece is so much about Joanna MacGregor that I cannot, as yet, imagine one. The dynamism of her playing and platform persona is reflected in a kinetic, toughly syncopated energy. It's never quite jazzy but always wishing it were: the second theme of the first movement is caught somewhere between expressionism and the blues - MacGregor plays it like some moody improvisation from the midnight hour; then, in the finale, she's sidetracked into a snappy duet with muted trumpets which makes no secret of its aspirations.

The big surprise, though, is the identity of the slow-movement theme, gradually materialising from a set of variations set in glacial textures. You know it's there, but it takes a crooning solo trombone to come clean with the old Nat King Cole favourite. In one luscious moment, the entire orchestra stirs itself and suddenly it's as if Alban Berg is harmonising Nelson Riddle. ES

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