Sunday, 11 November 2012

Wartime Elgar The Longed-for Light SOMM

For Novemvber 11th and for the forthcoming centenary of World War One, a prescient new release by Siva Oke's SOMM label The Longed-for Light : Elgar's Music in Wartime.

Elgar was a a public figure, from whom the Nation expected support at a time of war. He had no choice but to echo the sentiments of the time .Within two weeks of the declaration of war, Sir Henrty Wood conducted Land of Hope and Glory, requisitioning it forever as a work of belligerent patriotism.  On this CD, we have another work conducted on that same programme, Sospiri op 70 (Sighs) is very different. A graceful violin line, harp and organ suggest peacefulness.

More unusual is Polonia op76 (1915), since Poland didn't yet exist except as part of the Austrian and Russian Empires. It's an iunteresting exercise which blends themes from Chopin and Paderewski in a mix of grand orchestral music, mazurkas and marches. This piece could be also do service for memorials to the Second World War, and to the thousands of Poles who escaped to England after 1939.

Elgar's Fringes of the Fleet was a smash hit at the Coliseum London, when it was a music hall, long before it became the home of the ENO. In similar stirring vein is Carillon op 75 1914, based on a poem by Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts. The grand orchestral sweep, with its evocation of church bells and bugles, is bizarrely cheerful but defiant. "Sing, Belgians, Sing! Although our wounds may bleed, although our voices break, louder than the storm, louder than the guns, Sing of hope and fiercest hate!"  Simon Callow declamation is perfect.. He describes the burial of dead children with tenderness, but spits out words like "Hate!" with vehemence.  We need that blustering  because it recreates the mentality of 1914, with the violent revanchisme. We must face this, unpleasant as it is, because that was the extremism that would lead to Versailles, reparations and  revenge from the other side.

Une voix dans le Désert op 77 is based on a much more contemplative text by Cammaerts. Hollow drum beats suggest war and the trudge of tired, marching soldiers."A hundred yards from the trenches" Callow speaks in   "there stands a little house, lonely and desperate" The farmer refuses to leave. His daughter sings of larks and of peace, while  soldiers march past. "Not a breath, not a life, not a soul, only a flight of crows along the railway line".  Elgar decorates that phrase beautifully. It's a moment of humour amid the horror, like the farmhouse itself, surrounded by battlefield.

The third Cammaerts setting is Le Drapeau  Belge op 79. "Red for the blood of soldiers! Black, yellow and red !"  Elgar's music moves like a march, so you can imagine the flag unfurled. Callow is magnificent. Irony would be out of order here. He has to sound bombastic, for such was the spirit of the time.

The longest piece on this recording is a ballet The Sanguine Fan op 81. A ballet in wartime? Elegant Elgarian sweeps, delicate lyrical notes ideal for dancing to. Pan, Echo and cupids dance in a glade while humans die. It is escapist fantasy, a coda to the comfortable Edwardian world. For a moment the music darkens with alarming chords, but serenity returns.

Surprisingly, this recording works well as a seamless whole, although the works weren't written to be heard together as such.  Just as the farmer's daughter sings about larks and peace in the midst of battle, hearing pieces like The Sanguine Fan after Le Drapeau Belge reminds us that even in wartime, life goes on  and hope will return.  Whoever decided to place Sospiri and Carissima between the  Cammaerts settings knew what they were doing.  Together the five pieces form a kind of meta-tone poem for orchestra and voices, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  Indeed, I think it should be regular performance practice to blend the Cammaerts settings in this way for maximum impact.  On their own the Cammaerts settings are propaganda, almost music hall.  But heard in the context of  other, more characteristic Elgar, they give much deeper insight into how Elgar responded to war. Together with SOMM's superb Fringes of the Fleet (more here ) this recording expands our appreciation of Elgar's wartime works beyond The Spirit of England and Starlight Express.

John Wilson conductsd the BBC Concert Orchestra. Hear extracts from this disc incl Carillon on BBC RAdio 3 from 12/11.

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