There's something a little otherworldly and disorienting about Salt Lake City, I'm tempted to say, especially if you aren't Mormon or familiar with the ways of the LDS Church. It's unusual to encounter a spotless downtown in any American city, of course, but you do wonder at times if Salt Lake is a Hollywood set designed to make one's own sense of human imperfection uncomfortable. Utah, in general, is almost too beautiful to be real—but the city is curiously empty—even in the Bermuda shorts weather of late October. Immensely wide, perfectly laid-out avenues are nearly people free. (The "don't walk" signs count down from 30). There are few homeless people visible, though sometimes they are the only citizens seemingly present, horizontal black marks visible on distant sidewalks.
There is nothing more cozy and comfortable in the symphonic canon than the harmless narcissism of Strauss’s “domestic” symphony, originally titled “My home. A symphonic portrait of myself and my family.” Just how tasteful it all is has been a subject of debate ever since 1903, of course. As Peter Ustinov famously said of the composer: “I knew I wouldn’t like his wallpaper.” As it turned out, he didn’t.
About a year ago Sarah Connolly, Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony brought us rich rolling Sea Pictures as part of their Gerontius CD set for Chandos. In that voluptuous traversal Sarah Connolly sings like the golden girl who would be queen. This is grand Elgar in the tradition of Janet Baker, where soft low notes yearn and consecrate. At times the “r”s roll and things veer imperial. But there is another, more intimate way to woo these chords. It struck me immediately. Alice Coote nearly whispers the music to you like a woman in love. It isn’t a question of volume, of course. Coote sings all the dynamics as written. It’s her manner, so personal, so confessional. It matters less that her voice is slightly lighter than Connolly’s or that the orchestra’s pulse is less nautical. This isn’t tourist Elgar. This is three o’clock in the morning Elgar. And at that hour intimate tears are welcome.