The English Chamber Orchestra perform Elgar’s Sea Pictures

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COMPOSERS: Edward Elgar
WORKS: Piano Quintet (orch. Fraser); Sea Pictures* (orch. Fraser)
PERFORMER: English Symphony Orchestra; *Rodolfus Choir; *English Chamber Orchestra/Kenneth Woods


Of Elgar’s three major late chamber works, the Piano Quintet is the one whose textures most often sound ‘orchestral’. After hearing a performance that brought out precisely that quality, Donald Fraser decided to take things a step further and recreate the music in full Elgarian orchestral dress. The result is pretty remarkable. Fraser hasn’t just translated Elgar’s notes into rich and powerful orchestral terms, he has added (discreetly, it must be said) the kind of touches of colour and splashes of figuration Elgar himself might well have introduced. It really sounds like Elgar – but does it sound like the Elgar of the Piano Quintet? For me something of the music’s reticent, haunted quality is lost. Writing these last chamber works clearly prepared the way for the spare, radically thinned-out orchestral style of the Cello Concerto. I can’t help feeling that Fraser’s sound world, gorgeous as it is, is closer to the pre-war opulence of the Second Symphony, and as such it partly obscures the extent to which Elgar had moved away from his earlier grand manner.

On its own terms, though, it’s beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded. Same too with the Sea Pictures, and Fraser’s chorus-plus strings version should make this lovely cycle a lot easier to programme in concert – and, best of all, accessible to amateurs. It says a lot for Fraser’s skill as an orchestrator that for a while one hardly notices the absence of woodwind, brass, harp and percussion, and the four-part opening out of the original solo vocal writing is on the whole well judged, though one or two details take a bit of getting used to.


Stephen Johnson