December 24, 2009


Elgar: The Crown of India; Imperial March; The Coronation March; The Empire March. Clare Shearer, mezzo-soprano; Gerald Finley, baritone; Barbara Marten, Deborah McAndrew and Joanne Mitchell, speakers; Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Bliss: Viola Sonata; Delius: Violin Sonata No. 3 (arranged for viola); Bridge: Pieces for Viola and Piano. Enikö Magyar, viola; Tadashi Imai, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     The long-gone days of the British Empire resound strongly again – in very different ways – in these two new recordings. Elgar’s The Crown of India is a fascinating and very extended work, running more than two hours, with very British provenance and an unusual history. Staged in 1912 to mark the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India, Elgar’s work harks back to the old tradition of the masque: a very elaborate theatrical entertainment, popular in the 17th century with composers such as Henry Purcell. There is narrative, there is celebration, and there is a considerable amount of posturing that now seems distinctly old-fashioned and rather musty, with participants representing India, St. George, and the cities of Calcutta and Delhi. The libretto, by Henry Hamilton, is very much of its time and place and not particularly distinguished. But the music is quite solid, strong and sonorous: this is Elgar in his prime (he in fact conducted the first two weeks of performances of the work). The complete orchestral parts for The Crown of India were inadvertently destroyed in the 1970s, long after India gained independence from Great Britain – which means the excellent new recording led by Sir Andrew Davis, the first ever of the entire work, is in part a reconstruction. Anthony Payne completed the orchestration, using as his basis Elgar’s Crown of India Suite, which includes five pieces from the original score (plus a sixth, for solo violin, created specifically for the suite). Also surviving is the Crown of India March, which is not part of the suite. These works gave Payne considerable guidance in orchestrating the remainder of the work after the Elgar Society commissioned him to do so in 2007. He has done an excellent job: the music sounds throughout like Elgar’s, not like someone else’s interpretation of Elgar. The Crown of India is unlikely ever to receive considerable numbers of complete performances, since it requires five soloists (three of them in speaking parts), plus chorus and orchestra, to present a story that is quite out of tune with modern sensibilities. But for that very reason, it is wonderful to have this heretofore obscure but musically very interesting work available on CD in such a fine performance. Indeed, it is offered in two fine performances: the second CD includes the instrumental material and songs but omits the narrative and connective tissue provided by Hamilton’s words – and thus will likely be more satisfying to modern listeners. Furthermore, the two-CD set – being sold for the usual price of a single Chandos disc – is very well rounded out, again in the British Imperial spirit, with three of Elgar’s extremely fine marches: Imperial (1896-7), Coronation (1911) and Empire (1924). The material in The Crown of India will certainly not be to all modern tastes, but the music deserves far better than the obscurity in which it has so long languished.

     And speaking of languishing: the viola did so for centuries, suffering neglect as the smaller violin dominated both solo and orchestral playing. To a great extent, it was in Imperial Britain that the viola’s neglect began to be reversed, in large part with Walton’s Viola Concerto but in even larger part because of the renowned and long-lived violist, Lionel Tertis (1876-1975). It was for Tertis that Walton wrote his concerto in 1929 – and Tertis also had a huge influence on other British composers, even making a viola arrangement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto of which the composer approved. Sir Arthur Bliss wrote his Viola Sonata for Tertis in 1933 and dedicated it to Tertis “in admiration.” It is in fact an admirable work, moving from lyricism to solemnity to a scherzo-finale in the decidedly odd (and rather engaging) time signature of 6/16; and it is very well played in the new recording by the distinctly international pair of Enikö Magyar and Tadashi Imai. They also do a fine job with Tertis’ 1932 arrangement of Frederick Delius’ Violin Sonata No. 3, which Tertis played for the blind and nearly paralyzed composer (who died in 1934). The Delius work’s simplicity and lovely flow fit the viola quite well. And then, for an encore – or rather a series of them – Magyar and Imai offer seven short works by Frank Bridge, who was a violist but generally wrote brief pieces for violin or cello (which he later arranged for viola). The selections here, only two of which started out as viola pieces, date from 1901-8 and are quite varied in mood, with Magyar’s lithe and lovely playing giving each its due. Interestingly, there is a slight irony to Magyar’s considerable success with the music on this CD. She is Hungarian – indeed, the name “Magyar” means “Hungary” – and as it happens, the one 20th-century viola concerto that stands as an equal to Walton’s was written by one of Hungary’s greatest composers, Béla Bartók.

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