ALBUM TITLE: Bax * Elgar
WORKS: Bax: In Memoriam; Elgar: The Spirit of England; Une voix dans le désert; Grania and Diarmid
PERFORMER: Rachel Nicholls, Jennifer France (soprano), Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Ellicott (narrator); Hallé Choir; Hallé/Mark Elder
CATALOGUE NO: CDHLL7544
Laurence Binyon’s texts of The Spirit of England have the kind of war-memorial sensibility that divides opinion today. It was a sensibility that appealed deeply to Elgar himself, as to millions of his compatriots; and it drew from him some vintage musical material, particularly in ‘To Women’, the second of the three sections. The one deficiency in an otherwise memorable Hallé live performance relates to the work’s only soloist: Rachel Nicholls’s soprano voice, for all its beautiful tone and line, sounds uncertain when expanding above mid-volume.
Also featured here are two genuine Elgar rarities. A Voice in the Wilderness, setting a translation of the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts, portrays a bleak wartime scene, where a passing soldier hears a peasant girl singing from within her family’s ruined cottage. Elgar’s beautifully imagined score is graced with two very fine performances, from Joshua Ellicott’s narrator (his delivery and accent are pitched exactly right), and from soprano Jennifer France, whose touch with the girl’s song is an object-lesson in how to be affecting without affectation. The three items of incidental music written in 1901 for Yeats’s play Grania and Diarmid, while outwardly slight, nonetheless conjure a sense of atmosphere that rivals Sibelius’s peerless mastery of the genre, with mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw excellent in the druidess’s song.
Bax’s orchestral In Memoriam (An Irish Elegy), commemorating those who died in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, was the thought-provoking counterweight to The Spirit of England in the Hallé’s 2014 concert; it too is finely performed.