It is sometimes useful to read a less than positive review of one of the ‘great’ composers. I am a fan of Elgar’ and have been since first hearing Sospiri and the Introduction and Allegro on some old 78rpm discs which I found in the school music room cupboard. I still have a re-recording of these two works made on what was then the new technology of cassette tape!
However, I have never become an Elgar groupie. There are elements of his music that I just do not appreciate. Even the symphonies I can sometimes find to be a little long winded in places. I hold up my hand and admit that I have never really got ‘into’ the oratorios. And finally, although I count myself as patriotic as the next person, I cannot get my head round works such as The Crown of India, Polonia and some of the other Great War works.
Before someone suggests that I do not like any Elgar, I will list my top five ‘hits’- not in any order of preference – Violin Concerto, In the South, Introduction and Allegro, the Violin Sonata and the Enigma Variations. Furthermore, I tend towards the lighter Elgar (Mina, Chanson de Nuit etc.), rather than the vast amount of his choral music.
That being said, I post part of Ernest Walker’s 1907 critique of the composer. Perhaps I will present the more positive side to review this later. There is no need for commentary.
We cannot help noticing here and there a lack of sustained thematic inventiveness, a deficiency in the power of broadly organic construction; even when, in a way, quite original, the material sometimes consists of scraps of music, neither individually nor collectively of any particular interest beyond mere colour, joined together by methods not altogether convincing. Occasionally also there seems an undue reliance on a rather hot-house type of emotionalism, that every now and then comes near degenerating into a somewhat forced pseudo-impressiveness; the melodramatic bars that depict the suicide of Judas in The Apostles set on edge the teeth of listeners who have felt to the full the dramatic power of the pages that precede them, and there are parts of Gerontius' confession of faith that, though sincere, nevertheless suggest an atmosphere of artificial flowers.
Sometimes the splendour of the frame tends to hide the picture; and in the picture itself, when we do see it, the gorgeous colour tends to hide the drawing. His most inspired pages excepted, it is not altogether paradoxical to say that even the later Elgar is a light composer compared with the classics; the relatively sensuous elements seem often to be the main consideration, and it is very rarely that he shows anything of the bracing sternness that lies at the root of the supreme music of the world. The path of picturesque emotionalism is beset with snares, and Elgar has not escaped them every one; but, when all is said, an unmistakably new and living voice of high genius is something for which we must needs be lastingly grateful, and remembering his astounding progress in the past ten years we cannot but believe that there is still a further future before this youngest of our leaders.
Ernest Walker A History of Music in England 1907