Elgar: The Music Makers; Sea Pictures

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar
WORKS: The Music Makers; Sea Pictures
PERFORMER: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Bournemouth Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Simon Wright
CATALOGUE NO: 8.55771
Despite the fact that The Music Makers actually quotes from the Sea Pictures, a disc combining the two Elgar masterworks is a rare find. So this new release, featuring Sarah Connolly in both works, is at first glance to be welcomed. That having been said, Connolly’s disarmingly sentient and noble mezzo-soprano is let down in both works by the often over-generalised orchestral playing and mealy-mouthed choral singing from its Bournemouth forces. The sound is further hampered by a less than perfectly balanced recording.

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Elgar’s setting of O’Shaughnessy’s Ode in The Music Makers captures fascinatingly the visionary, yet melancholy, truthfulness of its aspirations: music, art, culture might make a difference, but Connolly catches this elusive ambivalence nicely, in tracing the fragile, ever-shifting human feelings of wonder, resolution and yearning, within clear and tender legato singing. Overall, I find her performance just has the eloquent edge over that of Jane Irwin, the obvious contender in the 2005 Hallé recording with Mark Elder. Yet the Hallé’s is by far the superior orchestral and choral performance, with Elder’s direction seemingly near-insurpassable in its detail, not to mention its energy.

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Similarly, in the Sea Pictures, Connolly’s word-lively singing is let down by only average orchestral playing. In both works, Janet Baker still reigns supreme. Indeed, Sir Adrian Boult’s 1966 direction of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and splendidly robust Choir pips even Elder and the Hallé to the post. And Sir John Barbirolli, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1965, again with Baker in her intensely ardent, deeply moving prime is, without doubt, still the essential recording. Hilary Finch