Elgar: Sea Pictures, The Music Makers — Vasily Petrenko — Onyx

by | Jul 27, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

ELGAR: Sea Pictures, Op. 37; The Music Makers, Op. 69 – Kathryn Rudge, contralto/ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vasily Petrenko – Onyx 4206, 60:25 (7/10/20)  [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Somewhat anticipatory of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) embraced a commission to depict the sea: in 1898 he answered the Norwich Festival’s call for “a piece for a vocal soloist” with Sea Pictures. Elgar’s Enigma Variations has proved a popular success, and Elgar chose five poems by various authors, each poem’s rendering a particular response to the wide ocean: its natural power and beauty, its dangers, its allure and mystery, its symbolic presence, and its sublime menace. For Elgar the beguilement lay no less in the idea of one’s individual oblivion in the face of Eternal Nature.. For Vaughn Williams’ First Symphony, the poetic impetus lay in the words of Walt Whitman, who saw infinite power in the motions of the waves and their titanic force; but for Elgar the beguilement lay no less in the idea of one’s individual oblivion in the face of Eternal Nature.  

Conductor Vasily Petrenko extends his ambitious tour (rec. March – July 2019) through Elgar’s work with two powerful, extremely personal, choral compositions. The 1899 Sea Pictures – a cycle of five songs based on maritime texts by Alice Elgar (for the second of the set), Roden Noel, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Garnett, and Adam Lindsay Gordon – issued from the composer’s mind on the heels of his doubtless popular Enigma Variations, Op. 35. Elgar set his Sea Pictures for the Norwich Festival, with the soprano Clara Butt especially in mind, and they performed the cycle in October 1899. No less than Gustav Mahler gave the cycle in New York in 1910, omitting the fifth song. For a generation of admirers, the EMI recording with Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli set the bar for sympathetic performance. Let us congratulate Vassily Petrenko and his responsive, musical forces for the sheer girth and amplitude of their efforts in behalf of the Elgar legacy.The opening “Sea Slumber Song,” the words by Alice Elgar, sets a nocturne seascape before us, the mellifluous voice of Kathryn Rudge accompanied by divided strings, harp slides, and beckoning woodwinds.  The repetitions of “Good Night” and the somber chords may have more of Schubert’s sense of mortality than sweet dreams.  A siciliano rhythm marks “In Haven,” an evocation of Capri, utilizing a transparent, reduced orchestra. The full orchestra ushers in “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for whom the Tristan myth looms ever-present. A fervent Maestoso carries us to God’s glory. This somber procession seems to echo the grandeur of the Nimrod Variation from Op. 35. 

By contrast, “Where Corals Lie” enjoys a rarified delicacy of texture, invoking a distant, enchanted land no less intoned by Shelley and Berlioz, respectively. The final song, “The Swimmer,” resonates with Wagner’s influence, with a stormy sea that challenges one’s commitment to survive. The oboe, to proffer relief, quotes from “Where Corals Lie.” The repetition on the word “Love” here, in the midst of a turbulent ocean, might have a kinship with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” But the vision of the war in heaven has no less a bit of Wagner’s Valkyries, the biting vocal attacks from Rudge and her high tessitura confident in their assertion of Will. 

The 1912 cantata The Music Makers, for full choir, contralto and orchestra, finds its inspiration in the poetry of Arthur O’Shaughnessy, specifically his Ode of 1873. While these verses seem dated and even maudlin today, the poem – and its setting by Elgar – had a fine reception by the public, who felt the nostalgia and Whitmanesque self-posturing to its taste. Like the Ein Heldenleben of Richard Strauss, the work vibrates with a degree of quotations from Elgar’s own oeuvre. After all, Elgar remained convinced it fell to the artist “to renew the world.” Both the poet and the musician concur that “creative suffering” would justify the role of the artist, who “inhabits both an earthly and a divine realm.”

The music opens in a fateful F minor with an allusion to the Enigma Variations tune, that, according to Elgar “emphasizes my sense of the loneliness of the artist as described in the first six lines of the poem.”  The chorus stresses the notion of “Dreams” and the “Dreamer who dreams.” Despite the moments of self-assertion and metaphysical optimism, doubts and anxieties infiltrate the poetry and the music. Michael Kennedy proclaims the work as “a requiem for Elgar’s psyche,” given that the year 1912 figured poorly in composer’s biography. 

Still, the music and its textural largesse do much to define Elgar’s artistic ambitions and his debts to J.S. Bach, whose muse informs much of the “enigma” of Op. 35. No less influential, Wagner’s through-composed operas and their reflexive commentary and extension of seminal leitmotifs guide Elgar’s aesthetic.  Short orchestral interludes of essentially “new” and harmonically adventurous music connect the various sections of the score. The contralto aria “They had no vision amazing” shines as the most glaring of the settings for the “Enigma” theme in all its divine luster. With the full chorus – and especially the male choir – we feel Elgar’s great admiration of Brahms, particularly in the scoring of Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. At one point, at the words, “Wandering by lone sea-breakers,” the violins directly quote from the first of the Sea Pictures. But even in the midst of solitary doubts, Elgar recalls that artists remain “the movers and shakers of the world forever” and “the deathless ditties that build all the great cities,” a sentiment reflected in those stunning pictures of Giorgio di Chirico, in which out of the very bellies of the creative statuary flow forth the enduring Forms of Civilization.

At another point, Elgar fuses his main theme from his E minor Cello Concerto to the Nimrod theme of the Enigma Variations, attempting to express his sense of loss for beloved friends and possibly for the imminent death of much of the civilized world about to explode in WW I. The sad, drooping melody from the Violin Concerto, often in juxtaposition with allusions to The Dream of Gerontius, create a heart-wringing, valedictory atmosphere, a kind of “summing up” of Elgar’s contribution to music at this period of his creative evolution, circumscribed by powerful doubts about the future of Mankind.

–Gary Lemco

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