David Mellor's Album Reviews: Elgar, Jussi Björling and Schubert

17 April 2019, 18:00 | Updated: 19 April 2019, 10:27

David Mellor's Album Reviews: Elgar, Jussi Björling and Schubert
David Mellor's Album Reviews: Elgar, Jussi Björling and Schubert. Picture: Global

By Helena Asprou

Every week, Classic FM presenter and music expert David Mellor reviews the best new releases and re-issues from the world of classical music. This week, David picks out Elgar, Jussi Björling and Schubert.

Album of the week

Elgar: String Quartet and Piano Quintet
Martin Roscoe/The Brodsky Quartet

Elgar: String Quartet Piano Quintet
Elgar: String Quartet Piano Quintet. Picture: Chandos

In the final months of the war, an ill and deeply depressed Elgar was taken off to Sussex by his doting wife Caroline Alice to a small cottage in Fittleworth.

Here, in an astonishing bout of creativity, Elgar finished his Cello Concerto, and just before that composed three pieces of chamber music, including the String Quartet and Piano Quintet, presented here.

The Piano Quintet is top of my list of hidden Elgar masterpieces, alongside another WWI piece, the Laurence Binyon settings for choir and orchestra, ‘The Spirit of England’.

The Piano Quintet is a lengthy work (38 minutes as presented here) with two impassioned outer movements, and a deep and intense slow movement as good as any Elgar ever wrote.

I do urge you to hear these fine performances, which are, as always, with Chandos (about to celebrate their 40th Anniversary) exceptionally well recorded, and very well played by all concerned.

Best bargain

Jussi Björling In Concert
Jussi Björling In Concert. Picture: Alto

Jussi Björling In Concert

Those who listened to my 70th birthday programme last month will know I have been haunted by the voice of Jussi Björling ever since I listened to his recording (with Robert Merrill) of the Pearl Fishers duet over tea at Cambridge University more than 50 years ago.

This newly remastered Alto album offers an opportunity to acquire at modest cost nearly 80 minutes of Björling singing a wide range of music from art songs and arias to encore pieces like ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’.

The bulk of this recording (16 tracks) comes from an RCA commercially issued LP of a recital Björling gave in front of a noisy and excitable audience at Carnegie Hall in 1955 with the pianist Frederic Schauwecker. 

The remaining eight items are drawn from more than 20 years of Björling’s all too short career, and are well chosen and include some of my favourites. 

The Pearl Fishers Duet is there, as well as two marvellous encore items, with totally memorable tunes: ‘For You Alone’ and ‘Because’.

And, to end up with, poignantly, a recording taken from one of Björling’s final concerts, just a month before his sadly premature death, aged only 49, in 1960.

‘This Lohengrin’s Farewell’ points ahead to a complete Lohengrin, that Björling sadly never lived to perform.

I don’t say that the Carnegie Hall items necessarily show Björling at his absolute finest, compared to his best studio recordings. But the atmosphere of a great artist delighting a packed house is marvellous. And, the rest of it, totally memorable. If you don’t know Björling, do buy or download this album.

If you do know Björling, Paul Arden-Taylor’s new transfers are well worth the modest price of this CD.  

Schubert - Andras Schiff
Schubert - Andras Schiff. Picture: ECM

Sonatas and Impromptus
Sir Andras Schiff
ECM New Series

For people who are totally immersed in classical music, this two-CD Andras Schiff recital of late Schubert offers real rewards, from one of today’s most thoughtful pianists.

He includes two of the three sonatas Schubert wrote in the last months of his all too short life. Plus, there’s the celebrated ‘Four Impromptus D. 899’ and the lesser known three Piano Pieces, probably left unedited and incomplete at Schubert’s death, and prepared for publication by Brahms forty years later.

Schiff has a lifetime of mastery of this music and his playing cannot be faulted. The programme is of the very highest quality, reflecting Schubert’s late enthusiasm for Beethoven, and plainly written under Beethoven’s influence. 

The instrument Schiff uses is almost as interesting as the music. It’s a Fortepiano made by Franz Brodmann in Vienna in 1820.

Incidentally, Brodmann was one of over 100 piano makers who flourished in the city at that time. The instrument was acquired by the Austrian Emperor’s Court, and taken into exile by the last Austrian Emperor, Karl I. 

Andras Schiff acquired it in 2010, so the link between him and this piano gives this recording an added fascination.