Mark Elder has the measure of The Wand of Youth music – inimitable Elgar, thirteen pieces that contain his complex spirit – and the Hallé is superb in response, from tender to virtuosic with numerous other qualities in between.
Elder opens with a rollicking account of the ‘Overture’, the poise of the playing never compromised, moments of nobilmente blossoming while remaining integral. Elgar, nostalgic for his childhood, made these Suites in 1907 (his fiftieth-birthday year) based on teenage tunes he composed for a family play, and deliberately gave them Opus 1 in his catalogue to reflect their early creation. In its full-orchestra (and masterly) scoring the music is wistful, deftly characterised (try the drama of ‘Fairies and Giants’, respectively delicate and with heavy-brass footsteps), exhilarating, always communicative and so-often delightful, touching and colourful, beautifully done by Elder, the Hallé responding with élan and sensitivity, whether solos or tuttis, and closing the set with a rampaging (and precise) account of ‘The Wild Bears’.
Nursery Suite is (to me) the more-elusive music, Elgar’s “final excursion into the past”, completed as 1930 came to its end. The eight movements look-back in different ways, with ‘Doll’ titularly common to three of them (described as ‘Serious’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Merry’, with the first of these enjoying some bewitching flute contributions from Katherine Baker). It’s not all reflective for a couple of numbers are lively indeed, both marked Allegro molto, yet the highlight is probably ‘The Wagon (Passes)’, quite exotic musically, and perhaps a metaphor for life; the named transport comes from afar, makes a splash, and disappears; and over too soon. Elder conducts with affection, as he does Salut d’amour and the deeply affecting Chanson de nuit; if it’s a shame to not have the latter’s Morning companion, this is nevertheless an excellent Elgar anthology – first-rate in every respect.