Edward Elgar: The Wand of Youth Suites

The latest release in the Hallé’s award winning Elgar Edition features works which reveal aspects of Elgar as both man and composer, reflecting his nostalgic strain and his gift for memorable, melodic invention.

Childhood, that most enduring of Victorian inventions, played an important role in Elgar's life as a composer. We find it in the exquisite orchestral miniatures Dream Children, Op 43, which Elgar produced in 1902, the two Wand of Youth suites of 1907 and 1908, the charming children's fantasy The Starlight Express, Op 78 (1915), and the Nursery Suite (1930). Elgar's three suites, which are the principal focus of this recording, also remind us of his indebtedness to the precedent of the French orchestral suite, a form highly prevalent in the Parisian Lamoureux and Colonne concerts and famous for such composers as Bizet (especially Jeux d'enfants), Saint-Saens, Massenet and Chabrier with their glittering examples of colourful orchestration. In the Wand of Youth suites, played here with great delicacy by the Halle under Mark Elder's affectionate and careful direction, there is no shortage of orchestral invention. We also experience more unusually that curious chemistry of youthful ideas (many of them dating from the late 1860s, the 1870s and early 1880s, well before the onset of Elgar's public career) cast in the adult clothing of the mature composer. It was an impression he clearly wanted to relate by assigning 'Op 1' to both suites. Many of the simple melodies are deeply affecting - the beautiful 'Serenade', the second subject of'The Little Bells' (which turns up in The Starlight Express), 'Fairies and Giants' and the delicious modality of 'The Tame Bears'. Elgar's scoring, too, seems to hark back to that more mellifluous instrumentation of the Enigma Variations in such movements as 'Moths and Butterflies', the evocative 'Slumber Scene' and the more Sullivanesque 'March'. Just occasionally the 50-year-old composer intrudes with the more advanced harmony at the end of 'The Wild Bears', but Elgarian thumbprints are everywhere to be seen, especially in the prevalence of Elgar's two- and three-part contrapuntal models and his love of the countertheme.

The later Nursery Suite, written for the two royal princesses, is also full of nostalgic reverie interspersed with movements of a more boisterous nature such as the compelling ostinato of 'The Wagon (Passes)'. 'Aubade' is enchantingly wistful, the gentle caprice of the flute solo in 'The Serious Doll' is tenderly poised, as is the dreamy portrayal of 'The Sad Doll', but there is something deeply personal about 'Envoy' which, with its violin cadenza (sensitively imparted by Lyn Fletcher) and thematic memories from the rest of the suite, embody more adult emotions of valediction. The inclusion of the orchestral version of Salut d'amour and Chanson de nuit from the first phase of Elgar's career are also a bonus. A must for all Elgar lovers! Jeremy Dibble, Gramophone January 2019



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Over the years the Hallé has performed Elgar works countless times and continues to maintain the orchestra’s long and distinguished tradition of playing this great composer’s music both in concert and in recording studio. In fact, it was the Manchester-based orchestra under Hans Richter which, in 1908, gave the première of the First Symphony at Free Trade Hall. In 2011, I reported from a Bridgewater Hall concert with the Hallé under Sir Mark Elgar performing the First Symphony. It was a thrilling performance and I wrote: “there are no better Elgarians around when Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra take wing in music that just runs through their veins.” Nothing has altered my view and this new Hallé release containing five Elgar works, examples of the composer’s more easy-listening music of popular appeal, continues to impress, demonstrating the Hallé’s special affinity for Elgar.

While still a boy, Elgar’s sketchbook contained themes from incidental music to a fantasy play he and his siblings had created. In his fifties Elgar returned to his sketch books and expanded this incidental music into a pair of charming orchestral suites of tableaux titled The Wand of Youth (Music to a Child’s Play). Additionally, Elgar utilised some dance music he composed when working at Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum. Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2 were introduced at Queen’s Hall, London (1907) and Three Choirs Festival, Worcester (1908) respectively, and open this Hallé album. I notice that Elgar did provide a brief narrative of the tableaux. Under the assured Elder, it becomes clear how splendidly Elgar orchestrated these enchanting suites. In Suite No. 1, Sun Dance is especially enjoyable, an exuberant Presto of an upbeat character, successfully evoking images of showers of light. Standing out in Suite No. 2 is the concluding tableau, The Wild Bears, a determined and breathlessly galloping Presto that teems with vivacity. In 1888, Elgar wrote a short work, titled Liebesgruß (Love's Greeting),,as an engagement present for his future wife. He submitted the piece to the publisher Schott in arrangements for solo piano, for violin and piano, and for orchestra. In a bid to increase slow sales of the music Elgar, believing French sounding titles sold better than English, changed the name to Salut d'Amour - Morceau Mignon by E. Elgar. In its newly adopted French guise it proved enduringly successful. August Manns conducted the first performance of this orchestral version at Crystal Palace concert in 1889. I admit to preferring the version for violin and piano, nevertheless the Hallé play with sensitivity and the solo violin part is tastefully given by leader, Lyn Fletcher. Musicweb-International

A late work from 1931, Elgar’s Nursery Suite evolved a couple of years earlier when he mentioned to William Laundon Streeton of HMV (the Gramophone Company) that he had found music sketches from his childhood. Elgar was Master of the King’s Musick and the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930 was the stimulus for him to write a new work. Elgar wrote a detailed programme note to accompany the Nursery Suite. Successfully premièred in 1931 at a Proms Concert, the next year the Nursery Suite was given as a ballet at Sadler’s Wells, choreographed by Ninette de Valois. In 1986 Frederick Ashton choreographed The Nursery Suite as his final ballet. The Nursery Suite is written very much in the manner of The Wand of Youth suites and is, I feel, just as appealing. My highlight is The Serious Doll, a rather reflective tableau complete with decorative part for solo flute, attractively played by Katherine Baker. It comes as no surprise that The Serious Doll has been published separately. I couldn’t help noticing the similarity of design between tableau The Wagon (Passes) to Bydlo from Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition. In addition, the concluding tableau Envoy (Coda), which fleetingly reprises several of the suite’s themes, has a lovely solo violin part, expertly played by Lyn Fletcher. The final work on the album, Chanson de Nuit, is a miniature lasting four and a half minutes here. Originally written around 1890 for violin and piano and titled Evensong, the score was given a new French title Chanson de Nuit for publication. Elgar’s later orchestration of the work for small orchestra was introduced at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert 1901. With its gloriously memorable melody, the piece has a level of sincerity and feeling not normally encountered in miniatures and benefits from the Hallé’s convincing playing.

Andrew Burns’ booklet essay is both helpful and an agreeable read. All the works were recorded under studio conditions at Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester and the engineering team excel with well-balanced sound that has pleasing clarity and presence. Sympathetically conducted by Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé lavish great care and attention on these works in delightfully fresh performances of irresistible joie de vivre. Those looking for a collection of lighter Elgar have no reason to hesitate with this outstanding Hallé album.

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