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The A-Z of Classical Music #5 – Edward Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G, Opus 28

Think of Elgar, and most likely you’ll think of Pomp and Circumstance, and the “Land of Hope and Glory” singalong that closes the annual Proms. You’ll think of The Enigma Variations, or you might, if you’ve been keeping up to date on recent releases, think of The Spanish Lady, a series of largely unused Elgar sketches that were realized by Martin Yates last year, and have just been released for the very first time by Dutton-Vocalion.

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It’s not one of Elgar’s major works, to be sure, although the ghosts of several do lurk around its edges - the finale even includes some unused ideas from Pomp and Circumstance March 6.But it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen and, if you do pick it up, our own subject for this blog, Organ Sonata in G, Opus 28, follows it in the disc’s running order.

Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the baton of, again, Yates, it’s an extraordinarily vigorous performance, with even the gentle “Allegretto” feeling as though it might burst out any moment.And, eventually, it will. But never to the detriment of the overall piece.

As a composition, the fact that Organ Sonata is one of Elgar’s masterworks is rarely questioned today.In terms of popularity, as measured by recordings and performances, however, it scarcely even nudges the supremacy of the usual candidates.

The Organ Sonata was written between April and July 1895, after Elgar was commissioned to compose a piece welcoming a group of travelling American organists to Worcester Cathedral - Hugh Blair, acting organist at the Cathedral, was an old friend of the composer and it was he who actually issued the commission.

The piece was duly delivered barely a few days before it was due to be performed, on July 8, 1895… according to legend, Elgar rarely set to work on any project until his deadline was looming, and this was no exception.The bulk of it was composed in June, and emerged a four movement sonata that clocked in a little shy of thirty minutes duration.According to various Elgar biographies, in fact, he cut things so fine that there was not even time for the piece to be properly rehearsed.

When Blair performed it for the visitors, then, it was the first time anyone had played it all the way through.And it would remain among his so-called “lesser works,” seldom performed and rarely recorded for some years to come.

One reason for it remaining in the shadows, of course, was the fact that it was written purely for organ.That said, however, there was a most stirring version performed and recorded by Herbert Dawson in the 1920s (or thereabouts), that has surfaced on the occasional compilation; indeed, Dawson was one of Elgar’s most prolific interpreters during that period, with a string of scarce 78s bearing his work.

Of more recent vintage, Simon Preston recorded a version for the Argo label in 1967; Thomas Murray gave a grand rendition on Boston’s famous old EE&G Hook Organ in 1979 (Townhall Records); while YouTube currently hosts a 1984 rendering by John Scott at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1984.

No orchestral version of the Sonata was produced during Elgar’s lifetime; the first did not appear until 1946, twelve years after his death, and it is this version, as arranged by Gordon Jacob, that is performed here.

Again, there has been a handful of earlier recordings, including a terrific BBC Concert Orchestra performance that was offered free with BBC Music Magazine (a redoubtable source for some truly glorious CDs) last year.The definitive rendering, however, has long been the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s 1986 recording.Indeed, it is that version which was collected into EMI’s 30 CD Elgar -The Collector's Edition box set.

This latest rendition at least challenges the RLP’s supremacy, and possibly tops it, the perfection of the performance abetted by the sheer magnificence of the SACD recording, and Dutton’s own reputation for quality.Although this is not the Sonata’s first appearance in surround sound (Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales got in there first, back in 2007), it is definitely the best, stirring and surprising, beautifully balanced and revealing every nuance of Jacob’s original interpretation.

Plus, the disc is not yet finished - Elgar’s so evocative Severn Suite completes the disc, while each of these main pieces is also introduced by three separate versions of Elgar’s “Civic Fanfare.”