In the mid ‘70s, a BBC TV series called A Place in the Country (a world away from the current naff television series of that name) focussed each week on a stately home (or historic “hice”, as Nancy Mitford would have called it) where decrepit grandees with titles like Lord Rupert and Lady Henrietta languidly reminisced about growing up: “If we misbehaved, Nanny would give us bread and butter for tea, without jam…” The theme music was among the most stirring I’d ever heard and it took me years to discover that it was Elgar’s Concert Overture In the South (Alassio), a work inspired by a holiday on the Italian Riviera, which just goes to show that great music can be used effectively in disparate contexts!
The Mediterranean seemed to liberate Elgar, as his music was never more opulent, warm and exultant, although the Roman legions certainly cut a menacing swathe. The central canto populare with a viola solo (later published as a song entitled In Moonlight) is beautifully handled.
My own favourite recording is by Constantin Silvestri (of all people) with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, closely followed by a mono version with the London Symphony under George Weldon. This version runs them both close.
In Hyperion’s ‘Worcestershire-meets-Respighi’ disc, the other main work is the Enigma Variations. Here, they’re up against hot competition. Brabbins takes more than 33’, making this a rather leisurely traversal of Elgar’s circle, although it doesn’t sound that slow. Of course, nothing could rival Bernstein’s infamous 38’ reading with the BBC Symphony where the huntin’/shootin’/fishin’ set were depicted as a clique of neurotic Manhattanites, straight out of Woody Allen, in an Upper West Side café discussing their phobias!
Dorabella’s hesitant lisp is gorgeous and the Nimrod variation, traditionally the spiritual focal point of the work, is suffused with quiet dignity.
The fill-ups are real oddities: one is an arrangement for clarinet and orchestra, never recorded before, of the song Pleading. I found it quite winsome. The others form a trilogy of recitations, declaimed rather than recited by the grandly titled Florence Daguerre de Hureaux.
The pieces were part of Elgar’s contribution to the war effort, composed between 1914 and 1917, to muster support for occupied Belgium’s resistance movement. They set poems by Émile Cammaerts for narrator and orchestra: Carillon celebrates Belgium’s bell towers as a symbol of the country’s resistance; Une Voix dans le Désert “A Voice in the Wasteland” (with soprano Kate Royal in lovely voice) depicts the horror of the Flanders battlefields with the sound of a young girl singing while the battle rages around her, while Le Drapeau Belge dwells on the symbolism of the Belgian flag. Great playing