I have seen it written more than once that Elgar was not a very successful songwriter. This new release by Channel Classics – volume 1 of the complete songs of Elgar – seeks to put those sorts of sentiments directly into the grave. I would be the first to argue for Elgar’s vast inconsistency as a composer—he was a very good one, but not a great one, though a few of his pieces transcend his abilities and move into the “masterpiece” category, notably, Enigma, the two (three?) symphonies, Cello Concerto, and maybe Gerontius (just maybe), and no doubt others would disagree. But these songs actually add to his plus category, not detract from it, and though some of the texts are ridiculously paltry, the music is not, nor is the composer’s ability to brilliantly set the texts before him.
And the music itself is quite varied in tone, not at all what you might expect from this most English of composers. The most famous works here are of course his Sea Pictures, assembled piecemeal at first and always performed with piano alone, though it is the nearly concurrent orchestral version that thrusts this work into the path breaking genre of orchestra song-cycle, one of the very first since Berlioz tried 80 years before with Les Nuits d’Ete. The work caught on fairly early, but it really wasn’t until Janet Baker’s defining recording with Sir John Barbirolli in 1965 that the piece entered into the public consciousness for good. The recording only solidifies expectations, Mr. Jarnot singing with English authority as a foreigner in a strange land.
The other songs are culled from various sources, as Elgar wrote them over a period of 30 years. One point of interest is the song written when he was 18, and only recently unearthed and published in the Elgar collected edition, The Self-Banished. Although not at the maturation level of the later works, it already shows Elgar as a considerably skilled song-setter and one whose neglect in the concert halls is not justified.
This disc shows off the surround capabilities most admirably, and Channel Classic once again proves that even a voice-piano combination can benefit substantially from SACD. Amanda Roocroft seems to ooze love for these works, as does Konrad Jarnot, and the pair will have quite a success on their hands when this series is brought to fruition.
Oh, Soft was the Song
There Are Seven That Pull the Thread
Sea Pictures, Op. 37
The Wind at Dawn
In the Dawn
Dry Those Fair, Those Crystal Eyes
Always and Everywhere
Like to the Damask Rose
Queen Mary’s Song
A Song of Autumn
Come, Gentle Night
— Steven Ritter