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 Recording of the Week  Two important Elgar rarities

I’ve got two exciting Elgar rarities to tell you about this week – one written to commemorate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India in 1911, and the other a patriotic song-cycle written in 1917 as World War I was reaching its climax.

Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar

The Crown of India is a substantial theatre work of about sixty minutes music written to accompany a masque with a libretto by Henry Hamilton. It is scored for contralto and bass soloists, chorus and orchestra. It is known that Elgar didn’t think much of the libretto, but he needed the money, and given only a month to complete the score it was composed almost entirely from themes he had jotted down over the previous ten years. Sadly the score was only published as a piano-vocal version and the remaining orchestral parts were destroyed in the 1960s. But following a commission from the Elgar Society, Anthony Payne has worked with the orchestral suite (5 movements of which have survived) and the piano-vocal version to re-create the score as Elgar may have written it.

A new recording has just been released by Chandos, and is performed by Clare Shearer and Gerald Finley, with the BBC Philharmonic and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. I’m not going to pretend that The Crown of India is up there with his best works, but there are passages of real beauty and it contains all the craft and inventiveness which one associates with Elgar. Furthermore, this recording is excellent. I’ve always enjoyed the warmth of sound that Andrew Davis brings to his recordings of Elgar and it is well worth hearing. Disc one contains the whole work including the narration, and disc 2 includes a version without the narration (which I think actually works better, on CD at least) and is supplemented by three marches. I’ve put a link to the whole of the ‘Crown of India March’ for you to listen to below and hope you will appreciate the quality of music which this work contains.

The other major Elgar rarity to tell you about this week is his song cycle for four baritones and orchestra The Fringes of the Fleet, which has just seen its first professional orchestral recording since that made by Elgar himself in 1917. It is based on poems by Rudyard Kipling on the theme of life on board a ship, and was first performed at the London Coliseum as part of the twice-daily variety performances that were popular at the time. It must have been very exciting to see Britain’s leading composer and poet working together on a piece for the theatre, and by all reports it was very well received, continuing its twice daily run at the Coliseum for nearly two months and then touring the country as well. However, in November of that year Kipling asked for performances to be stopped, and Elgar felt obliged to comply. Why Kipling made that decision is unknown but the net effect was that the work disappeared from the repertoire almost overnight and has remained absent ever since.

It is not a particularly long work (only thirteen minutes in length) but like The Crown of India contains some lovely music. It is also interesting to hear that Elgar could write music in this style at that time. I had previously only associated Elgar’s response to the First World War as being the Cello Concerto (written in 1919), where Elgar clearly laments both the loss of life and the loss of a way of life. The Fringes of the Fleet is a morale boosting song-cycle which is almost the exact opposite of the Cello Concerto. The performance is excellent and baritone Roderick Williams (who sings some other songs on the same disc) is particularly outstanding. I’ve put a link to the first of the four songs for you to listen to below.

Elgar: Crown of India, Op. 66

Clare Shearer (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Finley (baritone), Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus & BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Elgar: Fringes of the Fleet

Roderick Williams (solo baritone), Nicholas Lester, Duncan Rock, Laurence Meikle (baritones), Guildford Philharmonic, Tom Higgins

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC