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Elgar – Sea Pictures & The Music Makers

Sarah Connolly – mezzo soprano

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra & Chorus cond Simon Wright


Naxos – 8.557710

Recorded January 2006 – 1 CD – 63 mins


More than 40 years have elapsed since Dame Janet Baker sang Elgar's Sea Pictures with the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli but their recording remains one of the enduring legends of the catalogue. The richness and colour of Dame Janet's voice are indelibly planted within the minds of a generation and more of listeners with the unintentional side effect of turning this lovely cycle into something of a “sacred cow” piece which other singers have been reluctant to approach.


This makes a new recording, on the Naxos label, all the more welcome especially as it is sung by Sarah Connolly, who must be regarded as one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of the present day. Nevertheless, she makes a somewhat tentative start, with perhaps a couple of moments of slight insecurity in the first song, but by the time she gets to fourth verse she has gathered her strength and is away, fully committed to the demands of the music.


She emphasises the lyrical aspects of the work and is, I think, at her best with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sabbath Morning at Sea and Adam Lindsay Gordon's The Swimmer where she both brings out the narrative of the poems and paints a vivid picture of the seascape they both inhabit.


The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is in great form and fully supportive and it all adds up to a splendid performance, well worth acquiring even if you already have the “classic”.


The Music Makers is the coupling, and could be described as something of an Elgar compendium, with quotations from Gerontius, Enigma, his Violin Concerto and Second Symphony, band it makes a good complimentary choice. Arthur O'Shaughnessy's rather long contemporary poem (often abbreviated in anthologies to its first three verses) has references to the sea, but “dream” is the word that occurs most frequently in the text and the general air of mysticism is emphasised in this recording by placing the chorus well to the rear of the orchestra, and allowing their words to just filter gently through. Sarah Connolly is well to the fore for her excellent solo sections, every word of which is made to count.


Above all, it is a great show piece for the orchestra and that is just what Simon Wright and the Bornemouth Symphony make of it.


Full texts are included in the booklet, and the case is enclosed in a sleeve appropriately featuring J M W Turner's Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore – Naxos are clearly confident that they have a winner on their hands with this one!


Serena Fenwick