Tom Higgins / Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra

Elgar: The Fringes of the Fleet

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It seems surprising that a major work by Edward Elgar, for many years Britain's most successful composer, could only now be surfacing in full, but so it has, and it has the added virtue of being quite unlike anything else Elgar or anyone else ever wrote. The central attraction is The Fringes of the Fleet, set by Elgar during World War I to a cycle of poems by Rudyard Kipling, proclaiming the glories of the British fleet. It's a bit hard to tell from the notes (in English only) exactly what this work looked like in performance, but it seems to have been somewhere between a secular cantata and a stage show. It is for the unusual combination of four baritones and orchestra, and it sounds like a somewhat weightier version of The Pirates of Penzance, not everyone's cup of tea, but not without a good deal of immediate appeal. The work's disappearance from the repertoire was due not to anything done by Elgar, who was enthusiastic about it, but to Kipling's adamant refusal to allow further performances after its first flush of success, possibly because his son had been reported missing in action. Baritone Roderick Williams, conductor Tom Higgins, and the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra use the work as a centerpiece for other 20th century British pieces with a maritime theme, again, with a Rule, Britannia aspect that may provoke varying reactions, but a lot of the music is hard to resist. Consider the two separate settings of what might be called Kipling's anthem of globalization, Big Steamers ("We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter, your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese. . . . We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver. Address us at Hobart, Hong Kong, and Bombay."). One, for four a cappella baritones, is by Elgar; the other, for solo baritone and orchestra, by the mostly forgotten Edward German, who worked with W.S. Gilbert after the death of Arthur Sullivan. Other composers on the program -- Haydn Wood, John Ansell -- are likewise obscure but may be in line for a revival like the one that has greeted John Ireland, represented here by a couple of orchestrated songs. An enjoyable hour of the Anglophilia that has shaped even those who'd be irritated to think of it.

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