Elgar The Music Makers; The Spirit of England
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor); BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5215 (hybrid CD/SACD) 61:56 mins
I listened to this disc with growing apprehensions, all of them realised. So it’s necessary to say that the performances of these two relatively minor choral works are quite excellent, Sir Andrew Davis and his forces, especially Sarah Connolly and Andrew Staples (why is this wonderful tenor so little recorded?), give their all and one can’t imagine their being performed more nobly, to use Elgar’s favourite term.
It’s one of mine too, and at his finest I regard Elgar as one of the greatest composers of the last century. But these two pieces show him at his less-than-great, the first is bearable, agreeable, but no masterpiece, while the second, The Spirit of England, seems to me, for all Davis’s enthusiasm, a catastrophe. It’s familiar ground that the opening hostilities in every country in 1914 brought out the worst in artists. The Spirit of England was composed in the middle of the War, but doesn’t show Elgar to have achieved any perspective on it. I don’t know what he truly thought of Laurence Binyon’s poetry, but I hope he found it atrocious in its jingoism, which would be comic were it not so embarrassing (‘They fought, they were terrible, nought could tame them / they fell with their faces to the foe’ – and there’s worse). There comes a point in the setting of texts when the words are so frightful that either they drag the music down with them or there is a vast hollow between words and music. Unfortunately both of these are true of The Spirit of England, and though the other work here, The Music Makers, is vastly superior it’s not as good as it should be. But you won’t hear better accounts of these two regrettable works.