Elgar & The English Choral Tradition

Kevin Mandry

This recent issue in the extremely welcome Classico series only came to include a piece by Brian at all (as Lewis Foreman relates in NL 163) by chance; if the result is a happy surprise, there is also a faint suggestion of unfamiliarity and/or hasty preparation about one or two of the performances —and in particular, alas, that of Brian’s setting of Psalm 23.

Of course, one should be grateful both that the recording exists at all, and that the performers are of the standard they are; all too often one has become used to hearing unfamiliar repertoire in woeful performances by obscure orchestras. (Not that obscurity necessarily means second-rate; I’ve just been listening to performances of the Australian Benton Broadstock by a Siberian orchestra (!) that, on record at least. could knock the pants off the New York Phil!)

However, as John Grimshaw has already intimated in an earlier review, there is at times a mismatch between the forces assembled for this recording and those the composer must surely have had in mind. He was surely right when he suggested that Brian wrote for the massive crack choirs he recalled from his youth; and on this showing today’s Liverpool chorus—already handicapped by a fairly distant recording – would seem to be suffering from serious recruitment problems. There either just aren’t enough voices, or they’re too distantly placed. The music cries out for a sheer massive weight and density of sound that simply isn’t present—indeed many times the singers are swamped by the band. Similarly the brief solo is despatched efficiently enough, but the Old Testament text really requires a far more authoritative weight of tone and delivery.

It doesn’t help (sorry to keep piling on the complaints!) that Psalm 23 has frankly never struck me as one of Brian’s greatest work; I’ve always thought it workmanlike with a couple of inspired—and some less inspired—moments. As soon as the piece begins it’s reassuring to hear Brian’s unmistakeable character—all the more “odd” and distinctive for following directly on the comparatively conventional sounds of Howells and Dyson. One’s first thought is “this is something different…” However, I at least then find myself having second thoughts that say “…and I’m not sure if it works…” I do feel it needs all the help it can get, and sadly in this performance it doesn’t get enough. Douglas Bostock conducts steadily enough, but this is music that needs more than just a steady hand—it needs to go with real swagger and vim if the intrinsic originality is to win out over some rather routine passage work. The combination of a rather tentative approach to the music, and orchestral conducting that seems to miss some of the eccentric flamboyance (as well as the lightning switchbacks) of the music, passes muster as more than an acceptable run-through, but to my ears at least, not much more.

Nevertheless, aficionados will be pleased to have the disc, not least for the companion pieces; of which for me the best is the Howell’s Sine nomine—a world premiere recording of a ravishing short piece which seems to embody the essence of Howells’ musical-sunset vision, while I’d also want to put in a word for Frank Bridge’s melting “Prayer”. Fortunately each receives a more secure performance than the Brian. As well as one or two duds (did the world really need another recording of VW’s Job?) this otherwise entirely unexpected Classico series has thrown up some extremely welcome surprises—I’m thinking of pieces by Arthur Butterworth, Gordon Jacob and John McCabe in particular—and one can only hope there is more to come; and that if the producers ever include any more Brian, they alight on one of the many still unrecorded pieces, and in time enough to ensure the performance this rewarding but sometimes intransigent music demands. NL165 © 2003 Kevin Mandry

Newsletter, NL 165