Magazine article Gramophone

Three-Dimensional Elgar

Magazine article Gramophone

Three-Dimensional Elgar

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Imagine yourself walking the streets of London with a kindly old relative, a much-loved aunt perhaps, who is fondly reminiscing about how the city looked and felt 75-or-so years ago. Then suddenly, as if by magic, you're catapulted into the world she's describing, with every Cockney voice, trundling vehicle and shouting tradesman coming newly alive. Well, that is exactly how it seems at the close of Edward Elgar's 1933 recording of Cockaigne with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where fine (if constricted) mono switches to wide-screen stereo. Yes, Naxos has already given us Mark Obert-Thorn's excellent transfer of this last of three 78 rpm sides in 'stereo' (synchronised from two pressings where separate microphone/cutter arrangements were used) as a bonus track, but Lani Spahr had the ingenious idea of effecting the magical 'across-the-ages' transition. And there's more--much more.

The first disc ends with the only recording Elgar ever made of music that was neither his own composition nor his own arrangement, the hymn 'O God our help in ages past' (with music by William Croft and words by Isaac Watts), the venue London's Queen Hall, one of three recordings included from that same 1928 session with the London Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, and the only one in 'accidental' stereo--surely the happiest audio accident in history. You can take my word for it that the sound is fully up to the standard of mid-late '50s stereo at its most immediate--hugely sonorous and with great depth, powerful brass and a thundering organ at the rear of the choir. So is this what the Queen's Hall actually sounded like? Apparently so. Elgar's solid conducting--in big, bold sentences--also makes a strong impact. It sounds as authentically Elgarian as anything else in the set.

That's just for starters but the heart of this indispensible collection focuses on Elgar's completed concertos. To deal with the Violin Concerto first, there are four previously unreleased mono test pressings/ alternate takes from the legendary Yehudi Menuhin recording of 1932, including one that includes the first movement's second subject where the 16-year-old Menuhin's playing is, if anything, even more poised and lovely than on the finished recording. Sections of the following two movements witness other minor differences, though they're not quite so marked. The alternative takes of the Cello Concerto with Beatrice Harrison, most of them in 'stereo', are nothing short of revelatory. Not only is the sound a good deal more palatable than on the issued records (and subsequent LP/CD transfers) but the performance segments as presented are both poignant and potently expressive. …

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