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A Pair of Competing Sea Pictures From Berlin and Liverpool

September 5, 2020

Edward Elgar’s sole song cycle Sea Pictures is rarely heard in American concert halls — as is the case with most Elgar — yet recordings abound; indeed, two new ones have reached our shores at about the same time. One comes from a star pairing — Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča and Daniel Barenboim, who is building up his Elgar catalogue with the Staatskapelle Berlin (Decca). The other fields a dark horse team — the young Liverpool-born mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge with her hometown orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, led by Vasily Petrenko (Onyx).

Sea Pictures contains five songs with librettos by five poets, among them Elgar’s wife Caroline Alice. You can hear the lapping waves in the opening “Sea Slumber Song,” but no stormy seas for Elgar yet; his waters are gentle and genteel until the dramatic fifth song, “The Swimmer.” Petrenko indulges in impulsive sweeps, driving particularly hard in the opening of “Swimmer.” Gentler and broader in his approach, Barenboim finds deeper, darker, Wagnerian colors in the orchestra, a match for the darker color of Garanča’s voice, which expands to operatic dimensions in “Swimmer.” Yet Rudge has a natural advantage of more authentic English diction than Garanča and gets more meaning from the text.

The Berliners apply luxury-class opulence and depth, outplaying the Liverpudlians who sound somewhat opaque and not nearly as impressive as they were in Petrenko’s excellent Shostakovich cycle. Neither rendition, though, approaches John Barbirolli’s command of sharp rhythmic accents and Romantic rubato in his classic recording with the superb Janet Baker (Warner Classics).

Barenboim couples his Sea Pictures with the “symphonic study” Falstaff, while Petrenko chooses one of the more obscure of Elgar’s many choral works, The Music Makers. While they may look like opposite picks at first glance, it turns out that both couplings bring to mind one of Elgar’s contemporaries  — Richard Strauss.

Falstaff is Elgar’s Till Eulenspiegel, a symphonic romp full of mischievous escapades, twists and turns in which Elgar almost equals Strauss’s resourcefulness as an orchestrator. It’s yet another example of worthwhile 20th-century English music that we Americans only know through recordings (I can’t recall ever hearing it in concert). Barenboim and the Berliners have enough rambunctious energy when needed, yet there is a heaviness in texture that sometimes gets a bit in the way. Still, it’s a voluptuously-recorded improvement over Barenboim’s first recording with the London Philharmonic from the mid-1970s. For a historical comparison, hear Elgar’s own early-electrical recording; it delivers the bustling impishness of his work vividly through the threadbare 1932-vintage sound (Warner Classics).

The Music Makers sets the Arthur O’Shaughnessy poem “Ode,” which celebrates the role of creative artists who form the core of a nation’s soul, as opposed to politicians and armies. Elgar veers dangerously close to sentimentality yet steers clear of the edge with deft harmonic shifts here and there. Like Strauss in Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life), Elgar feels free to quote several of his own works extensively. The most obvious example is the Enigma Variations theme cropping up in the orchestral intro and the first verse, with the famous “Nimrod” variation turning up in the mezzo-soprano solo in the fifth stanza, which is then taken up by the choir. If you’ve never heard this stirring music with voices, be prepared to be profoundly moved as Rudge’s gently throbbing voice soars regally on the “Nimrod” tune, followed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus as Petrenko drives them on. The critics of Elgar’s time ripped him for all of the self-quotes, but if it was all right for Strauss to recycle his material, why not Elgar?

Petrenko adds a hurried rendering of Elgar’s greatest hit, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, as a superfluous encore. It sounds circusy at this tempo, like a sprint down the aisle to grab a diploma.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.