Elgar: The Light of Life

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The Light of Life
PERFORMER: Judith Howarth (soprano), Linda Finnie (contralto), Arthur Davies (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone)LSO & Chorus/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9208 DDD
Like all composers’ early works, Elgar’s Light of Life requires the professional touch, even more than the established masterpieces, if it is to win over sceptics. You couldn’t ask for more professional forces than these under Hickox, and together they make a strong case for the oratorio as an admirable piece in its own right, as well as a fascinating forerunner of The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles.

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To my surprise I found that the new Chandos disc did not exactly demolish the opposition: namely the Charles Groves recording of 1981, recently reissued by EMI. Indeed, once or twice Groves even has the edge: he and his soprano soloist Margaret Marshall better capture the introspective anguish of the Blind Man’s Mother at ‘Be not extreme, O Lord’. Otherwise John Shirley-Quirk is equally eloquent on both recordings, while Arthur Davies (for better or worse) is a touch more operatic than Groves’s Robin Leggate (neither has quite the ideal rapt, inner quality).

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Hickox’s mastery of the idiom rarely disappoints, however. In the opening Meditation, the great G major tune (representing the Light of the World) is not just abruptly announced: it steals in unobtrusively, suffusing the score with a warm spiritual glow. The exhilarating choral apotheosis, with the London Symphony Chorus (superior to Groves’s Liverpudlian forces) in excellent voice, and enhanced by Chandos’s characteristically spacious recording, offers the best argument for the full-price new disc. Barry Millington