In my experience Elgar seems to have been more difficult to record than his contemporary big-orchestra merchants Mahler and Strauss. This recording captures his sound better than any I have yet heard, and it is a particular pleasure to me to say that. The recording was done exactly two years ago in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. I still lament the abandonment of my beloved Free Trade Hall to commercial usage, and I detest the Bridgewater Hall, a flashy vulgar and energy-profligate monstrosity. However what the Bridgewater undoubtedly has is magnificent acoustics, and I can now enjoy those without having to go to the wretched place. The biggest problem in recording Elgar comes with his choral works. These demand an exceptionally wide compass of volume, and when I set that high enough to obtain a satisfactory pianissimo in, say, Rattle's fine Gerontius, I'm blasted out of the room at `Praise to the holiest'. Admittedly, The Music Makers does not go to such extremes, but the problem is of the same nature, and I was able to use a high volume-setting without fear.
Of the four works presented here, I'm not sure which the general description `self-portrait' is meant to apply to. The author of the liner-note has a more inclusive notion of that than I have so far had, telling us baldly that Falstaff is `undoubtedly...a self-portrait'. I remain highly unconvinced, and the only item on this disc that seems to qualify beyond doubt is The Music Makers. Froissart is a fine vigorous and typical piece, but largely extrovert in tone. Dream Children is nostalgic but hardly self-portraiture, and the Bach arrangement is a portrait of Bach. The Music Makers is the real self-portrait, and it is one of Elgar's greatest and most characteristic compositions. Elgar's religious faith may have been as central to his identity as Bach's was to his, but Bach's unshakable certainty is worlds away from Elgar's unsettled searching. He scored a bullseye with his choice of text in this instance. Elgar had nothing like Britten's literary discernment, but O'Shaughnessy's poem cries out for musical setting. It is the song of the musicians of destiny, sympathetic to humanity but remote from us, and while O'Shaughnessy is no great writer there is true and genuine poetry in this nebulous but evocative ode, and it brings out the best in Elgar as he himself said the (far inferior) text of Gerontius did. His unquiet soul was stirred by its sad but serene message, and the quotations from his own works as it goes along give us clues, imprecise but sufficient, to the thoughts that arose in him.
The performances seem admirable to me, and it has been heartening to hear the Halle forces in such good form these days. Both Froissart and the Bach transcription are full of vigour and forward impetus, and right from the start of Froissart I was daring to hope that at long last I was going to hear an Elgar recording where both performance and recorded sound would combine as I want them instead of being a thing of my dreaming like the music makers' inspiration in the poem. Dream Children is beautifully tender and quiet, full of understanding of its special mood. I held my breath as The Music Makers got underway. The orchestral sound at the start was excellent, powerful but not overpowering, but I needed to hear how the recording coped with the chorus and it seems to me that it copes admirably. Mark Elder does well, very well indeed, in shaping and moulding the work, and Jane Irwin has a beautiful voice, a real sense of the work's idiom, and fine control over her sustained quiet notes.
All the above has been written after just two hearings. I have been particularly lucky in that except for the Bach arrangement the other pieces here have managed unaccountably to escape my collection until now, and now I start with them as I would want them. At the moment my confidence is high that my first impression is going to stick. If you choose to obtain the disc, be bold about setting the volume fairly high. Elgar's sound needs that to give full value, and what value it is.