United Kingdom Elgar: Claudia Huckle (contralto), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 11.12.2017. (PCG)
Elgar – Cockaigne Overture (In London Town), Op.4; Sea Pictures, Op.37; Serenade for strings in E minor Op.20; In the South (Alassio) Op.50
The undoubted popularity of Elgar’s song cycle Sea Pictures is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although the songs enjoyed a measure of success during their composer’s lifetime, after his death they fell into a period of obscurity along with all his other solo songs, condemned as much on account of their texts as of the music itself. I recall an LP sleeve note during the early 1960s which described Elgar’s selection of lyrics for his solo songs as ‘trash’, a trenchant judgement (however misguided) which clearly admitted of no appeal. It was not until Sir John Barbirolli chose Sea Pictures as a coupling for his much-anticipated and highly successful recording of Jacqueline du Pré in the Elgar Cello Concerto that purchasers of that LP discovered the merits of the song cycle and took it to their hearts. This was due in no small measure to Janet Baker’s performance; she was just beginning to establish her reputation as a singer who became a favourite of British audiences in a manner that rivalled the much-loved and much-lamented Kathleen Ferrier. That ‘Baker recording’ has remained a best-seller in the catalogues ever since, in any number of different couplings, and has spawned a whole raft of challengers (many also including Elgar’s ad lib organ parts in the third and fifth songs) without ever losing its place as the primary recommendation for performances of the work.
It remains true, however, that Sea Pictures is a very challenging work for any singer. In the first place, it demands an extremely wide range of over two octaves (from the G below middle C to the high A above the treble staff). Elgar himself seems to have recognised it as a potential difficulty since he provides plentiful alternative vocal lines for the singer at both ends of the spectrum. Secondly, the third and fifth songs constitute a considerable orchestral challenge to the soloist, who is required to project the text with a positively Wagnerian amplitude if she is to be heard at all. At the same time, the second and fourth songs, relatively simple strophic settings, require a delicacy of approach which can defeat attempts by more strenuous singers to refine their voices down to the required scale. What is really needed is the sort of voice that can sing Erda in Wagner’s Ring, with a clarity in the upper range rising from a deep-toned contralto; and such singers are as rare as hen’s teeth in any one generation.
It must have therefore been a real problem for the BBC when Catherine Wyn-Rogers was forced to cancel her appearance in this concert at short notice. They were fortunate indeed to obtain the services of Claudia Huckle, scheduled to sing Erda in the coming season in Leipzig as well as undertaking Wagnerian roles at Covent Garden. Her voice is naturally lighter in tone that that of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, with a more mezzo-soprano tone rather than the deeper contralto of the singer she was replacing; but she had no need to take any advantage of Elgar’s alternative vocal lines, producing enough volume at both ends of the register to carry clearly over the orchestra. Her delivery of the poetry was none too distinct (we could have done with the texts in the programme) but otherwise she was firm-voiced and highly impressive. She clearly stands on the edge of a major international career, and we were lucky to hear her. The very full audience thoroughly enjoyed this performance, and the optional organ parts added to the richness of sound that Tadaaki Otaka conjured from the orchestra —they make a real difference in Sabbath morning at sea.
The early Serenade for strings was given a charming performance under Otaka’s baton, with the full tones of the orchestral violinists well in evidence. The parallels between the central slow movement and the equivalent passage in the later First Symphony were underlined and effective, and the triple rhythms of the outer sections danced along in a suitably light-hearted fashion. Lesley Hatfield’s isolated solo lines, too, came across well.
The concert was framed by Elgar’s two mature concert overtures in the shape of Cockaigne and In the South, both tone-poems which depict specific locations without being tied down to any specific programme. It is interesting and amusing to note that Elgar, dedicating Cockaigne to ‘my many friends the members of British orchestras’, sought to increase their employment opportunities by proposing that in passages of the score two extra tenor trombones should be added to increase the general uproariousness of proceedings. I have never seen this done — the suggestion was not taken up here — but it might be fun. It would also add an additional element of vulgarity to the trombone passages in the score marked ‘glissez fantastico’. Such a curious combination of multi-lingual instructions cannot be literally obeyed (the notes concerned simply cannot be played as glissandi) but it would surely sound weird in the extreme if the players chose to take up the implications of the markings at this point. Again I cannot recall any performance which tried to do this; Norman del Mar, who draws attention to the relevant direction in his writings on Elgar, never (as far as I can tell) recorded the work, and nobody else seems to have sought to realise the effect. Never mind; this thoroughly enjoyable performance also gained from the addition of Elgar’s ad lib addition of the organ to the closing pages.
In the South was written as a sort of consolation for British audiences following the composer’s holiday in Italy during the winter of 1903-1904 which was originally intended to produce his First Symphony (they had to wait another four years) but it remains a curiously ‘bitty’ work, rather more an assembly of sketches than a finished symphonic whole. In particular, the striking slow march section towards the end of what I suppose should be regarded as the ‘exposition’ never returns in the later pages, leaving us instead with a closing peroration that sounds curiously manufactured —not the expected culmination. The delicate central section with its viola solo, which Elgar subsequently extracted for separate performance under the title of In moonlight, was beautifully played here by Rebecca Jones, but it sounds rather forlorn and out of place in its original context. Tadaaki Otaka started off bravely and manfully, with a positively Straussian riot of sound; but as a concert overture the piece still fails to cohere, at least to my mind.
At the end of the concert the orchestra made a presentation to the conductor, not only to commemorate his recent seventieth birthday but also to celebrate his long-standing association with the organisation of which he is now the Conductor Laureate. Long may this association continue. In the meantime audiences will be pleased to be able to hear the complete performances, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, on the BBC iPlayer over the next thirty days.
Paul Corfield Godfrey