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ELGAR. Piano Quintet in A minor'. String Quartet in * E minorb. 'John Bingham (pf); Medici Quartet (Paul Robertson, David Matthews, vns;
Ivo Jan van der Werff, va; Anthony Lewis, vc).
Meridian (D (2) ECD84082. Item marked a from
E77082, bnew to UK.
Elgar's late chamber pieces are so often referred to as 'autumnal' (are so often, indeed, described as `late': there is virtually no truly late Elgar at all) that it is perhaps hard to remind ourselves that he had only just turned 60 when he wrote them. His wife's first reaction on hearing them was "E. writing wonderful new music", and these performances are a splendid reminder of just how much passion, boldness and grand, sweeping power these works contain, how many recollections of the urgency of his youthful music. And Alice Elgar was quite right: it is a new urgency, pointed and refined by the discipline of writing chamber music, a discipline that clearly rejuvenated Elgar's imagination. It is big chamber music, with at times an almost orchestral sonority to it, and what makes this reading of the Quintet so satisfying is the players' recognition and wholehearted enjoyment of this quality.
John Bingham, an artist not nearly often enough heard on records, is a formidable pianist who lavishes on this music the richness of sonority, the eloquence and the eager energy that he would bring to Brahms. Not all quartets could match him in amplitude of gesture and fervour of utterance, but the Medici are with him all the way, and the Quintet emerges as a very big and very tough piece as a result. The touches of shadow and of poignancy are not understated, certainly not those of harsh angularity; perhaps the players could have relaxed a little at one or two points (in the second subject of the finale, say), but there is ample compensation in the Beethovenian expressiveness of the adagio (truly nobilmente at its conclusion) and in the superbly sustained impetus of both outer movements. The Quartet, too, has deep passion as well as gentle melancholy to it, forceful power as well as a lovely tenderness of expression in the beautifully phrased slow movement. It would be misleading to describe these as `youthful' performances, but they do respond with youthful vigour and affection to a music that recaptures the enthusiasm of youth and couples it to the contemplativeness of maturity.
The Quartet is marred by an excessively bright and close recorded focus; its harshness can be mellowed and its lack of a true pp can be restored by an adroit use of the controls, but one should not need to do this with a CD, and what a pity that the sympathetic acoustic of one of the fine rooms at Sutton Place was not made more of. It is more evident in the Quintet, where the microphone steps a few yards back (it was wise to, given the sheer attack of Bingham's playing) with a great gain in warmth and natural perspective. But the performances are of a calibre that I would be happy to recommend even if they were on the scrawniest of pre-electric 78s: the conviction that both works are masterpieces blazes through. M.E.O.

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