About this Recording
8.111022 - ELGAR: Cockaigne Overture / Enigma Variations / Pomp and Circumstance Marches (Elgar) (1926-1933)

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations • Cockaigne Overture • Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1–5

Even in the 21st century, Elgar and the gramophone continue to represent the marriage of musician and new technology as a heaven sent partnership. They were both in the right place at the right time, fitted hand in glove and nurtured by two consummate artistic and technical matchmakers, Fred Gaisberg and Trevor Osmond Williams of HMV.

Elgar’s first recordings were made in 1914 in the acoustic era. Aged 56, he was at the apex of his career as a composer. A string of large-scale choral and orchestral works as well as numerous smaller scale popular pieces placed him at the forefront of the British music scene, with acclaim in Europe and the United States together with several prestigious honours and appointments to his name. The obverse side of the coin, however, was already much in evidence, most pertinently to the composer himself. After the rapturous reception of his First Symphony and the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony had been coldly received in 1911. Despite the public clamour for pomp and circumstance, these sentiments were already becoming out of kilter with the times and were to be tainted forever by the imminent experience of the Great War.

Elgar’s trademark style was fast approaching a dead end with little place to go other than the tonepainting of the Straussian Falstaff or the overt nostalgia of the Cello Concerto. How percipient the inscription of the Second Symphony “Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!” turned out to be for the composer’s own waning inspiration. The combination of bewilderment at the slaughter in the trenches and the death of his wife shortly after began a prolonged period of withdrawal into disillusionment and creative block. At just the right moment came the courtship of ‘His Master’s Voice’ Gramophone Company Ltd. By 1914 it was the world leader in recorded sound engineering and had already started to build an estimable catalogue of serious music. Although the acoustic process still required considerable reduction of forces, the recording of orchestral music was becoming more viable. The most recorded conductor of the time was Sir Landon Ronald and it was he who brought about the meeting of Elgar with the managing director of HMV, Alfred Clark. Given Elgar’s increasing dissatisfaction with the superficialities of London social life, the isolation from his beloved Worcestershire countryside and the jolt of the nonrenewal of his contract as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1913, the need for new stimulus in the capital was becoming urgent. His well-known enthusiasm for all manner of scientific experiment and innovation was the carrot fed to prompt a regeneration of musical enthusiasm and fulfilment.

The ploy succeeded to the extent of inspiring Elgar to compose a short new work, Carissima, especially for his first sessions. The recording took place in January 1914, the month before the public première which was to be conducted by Landon Ronald. To secure maximum take up, its speedy release was scheduled as soon as the composer’s approval would allow. Lady Elgar’s diary effuses over her husband’s satisfaction with the recording and the process in general. The composer was quick to appreciate not just the entertainment value but also the documentary worth of the medium. It was during these sessions that Elgar first met Fred Gaisberg, the American recording expert, who was to become as much an amanuensis in the studio as the composer’s trusted editor, A.E. Jaeger, had been in the preparation of his works for publication. A contract for more recordings with HMV was signed on 16th May.

The real transformation, however, occurred with the development of electrical recording in the 1920s. Not only did the process itself become possible electronically, but in 1925, so did sound reproduction and amplification. Most significantly, it allowed lifelike realisation of the full symphony orchestra to become possible for the first time. Already HMV’s most prestigious flagship artist, Elgar’s fervent endorsement and new recording projects would add untold potential and lustre to the catalogue. Several of his major works already recorded in the acoustic era were taken into the studio once again to take advantage of the latest advances.

Elgar’s first electrical recording sessions took place on 27th April 1926 with a performance of Cockaigne with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, but the 1933 remake with the BBC Symphony Orchestra included in this compilation immediately highlights the greater virtuosity and tighter ensemble of the recently constituted Boult-trained orchestra, not to mention the ebullience of the composer relishing every moment even more fully than before. The first two Pomp and Circumstance Marches followed immediately, with the Enigma Variations the day after. Some of the Variations were rejected and remade more successfully on 30th August. Interestingly these 1926 recordings incorporated the organ for both Cockaigne and the finale of the Variations, but when the BBC version of the overture was set down, Elgar wrote to Rex Palmer in the Artistes’ Department of HMV stating that ‘the organ can (must!) be omitted’.

Some of the Marches feature minor cuts probably sanctioned to accommodate side lengths, but contemporary reports firmly trounce any other suggestion that Elgar’s performances were interpretatively tailored for duration restrictions. Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5 is another instance of recording just two days before a première guaranteed to generate maximum public interest. Given the composer’s impatience with the jingoistic high-jacking of these works by the time he came to record them, his high-speed volatility in the outer sections renders them unusually threatening rather than merely celebratory.

The importance of Elgar’s recorded legacy cannot be overestimated. Richard Strauss was his only contemporary to record such a large number of his own works, but these were for the most part uncoordinated and rather piecemeal issues by comparison with the attractively presented Elgar Edition marketed by HMV in 1934 at the time of the composer’s death. Moreover Strauss frequently seems inhibited by the extroversion of his own music, masking its essential features almost to the extent of wilful self-effacement and embarrassed sobriety. By contrast Elgar brings transparency, fluency and irrepressible zest to his own music. His flexibility and spontaneity are remarkable object lessons in natural rubato, phrasing and articulation. Nowhere is his distinctive nobilmente more accurately and sublimely defined than in the coda of Cockaigne, which, stately as a galleon, resolutely refuses to sink under its own weight. Elgar was working with musicians he knew and trusted. The chemistry is palpable and evergreen, even when compromised by momentary slips in sound quality and execution. Unlike Britten, the other major twentieth-century composer, who produced his own recorded testament, Elgar’s traversal significantly benefits by distance from the moment of creation. Mostly recorded towards the end of his life, it represents a rediscovery of the most personal music nourished by its own creator’s objective clarity and refreshing honesty.

Ian Julier

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