Elgar: Sea Pictures, Falstaff review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Garanča/Staatskapelle Berlin/ Barenboim
Elina Garanča’s golden tone and Barenboim’s precision are appealing, if they don’t quite find Elgar’s most English music

No conductor working today has done more to internationalise Elgar’s music than Daniel Barenboim. Like Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink before him, Barenboim has recognised that the best of Elgar’s music deserves to be compared with that of his European contemporaries, and that its roots are often more firmly embedded in Austro-German late Romanticism than they are in the pastoral landscapes of Edwardian England. He made an extensive series of Elgar recordings with the London Philharmonic in the 1970s, but returned to the composer in 2014 with a recording of the Second Symphony, followed two years later by the First. Magnificently played by the Berlin Staatskapelle, with its burnished, dark central European sound, both performances were a revelation, immediately reconnecting Elgar with the composers he most admired, Brahms and Richard Strauss. If Barenboim’s subsequent Berlin recording of The Dream of Gerontius was less exceptional, it still cast fresh light on a staple of the British choral repertoire.

Elgar: Sea Pictures; Falstaff album art work

The two works on this latest disc present a very different challenge, however. Where the symphonies and even Gerontius relate very obviously to European archetypes, there’s something much more indelibly English about both Falstaff and the song cycle Sea Pictures. Falstaff is the nearest that Elgar came to composing a Straussian tone poem (he called it a “symphonic study”), but there is something missing here. Technically once again the performance is impeccable, but it misses a nostalgic dimension that the finest British recordings – Adrian Boult’s, John Barbirolli’s – identify more convincingly without ever becoming twee, which Barenboim’s performance unexpectedly does.

The Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča is the soloist in Sea Pictures. Janet Baker’s recording with Barbirolli is the benchmark here, and though Garanča’s diction can be indistinct and she doesn’t match Baker’s conviction in the fusty Victorian poetry that Elgar sets, her golden sound and warm, supple phrasing are still very appealing on their own terms.

This week’s other pick

The latest disc in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concertos series features works by British composers of a later generation, Arthur Bliss and Edmund Rubbra. They are very different works – Bliss’s concerto, composed for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and first performed by the greatest of all British pianists, Solomon, is a bravura piece in the grand Romantic tradition, while Rubbra’s, from 1955, is much more self-effacing and contemplative, never emphasising the element of display. Piers Lane, with the Orchestra Now conducted by Leon Botstein is the soloist in both concertos, and adapts convincingly to the very different demands of each of them.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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