Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 1 in A?
Symphony No. 2 in E?
Andrew Davis, cond; Philharmonia O
SIGNUM 179 (2 CDs: 111:46) Live:
The first decade of the 20th century was a good time for symphonies. It was
1908 when Edward Elgar completed his First Symphony. That year also saw completion of Rachmaninoff’s beloved Second Symphony. The year before that, 1907, Mahler was putting the finishing touches on his Eighth Symphony (though it wasn’t performed until 1910), and a Finnish audience heard Sibelius’s Third Symphony played for the first time.
Listening to this laive recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, emanating from a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that also included the composer’s
Overture, I was reminded once again of what a magnificent score it is. The slow tread of its introductory march, so aptly marked by Elgar
nobilimente e semplice
, exudes the essence of English pride tempered by an ineffable dignified sadness. It always calls to mind the opening Adagio movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, “The Philosopher,” except that Elgar’s Andante is so much more poignant. Few symphony beginnings have the ability to move me as this one does with such understated power.
Apparently I’m not alone, for there are currently 37 entries listed for Elgar’s First Symphony at ArkivMusic, one of which is Andrew Davis’s earlier essaying of the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Apex. I don’t have that recording, but I do have two other performances by the Philharmonia, one from 1983 on EMI led by Bernard Haitink, and the other from 1990 on Deutsche Grammophon led by Sinopoli. But the one I hold near and dear is a third performance I have, the 1985 Philips recording by André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. None of the three, however, can compete with this new one in terms of sonic opulence. The breadth and depth of the soundstage are palpable, and the richness of the orchestra’s sound is enveloping.
Before comparing performances, some printed track-listing errors need to be corrected. The first movement, which consists of the aforementioned introductory Andante followed by an Allegro, times out at 20:26, not 7:32, as printed. And, according to all three of the other recordings I have, Elgar’s tempo direction for the last movement is Lento–Allegro. Some strange lapse by the producer or editor of the new Signum disc caused the tempo sequence to be printed as Allegro–Lento–Allegro.
Now let’s look at some of the interpretive differences among these four versions. At first, Davis sounded slow to me, and at 20:26, his first movement is in fact exactly one minute slower than my preferred Previn performance at 19:26. But Davis is faster by a hair than Sinopoli, and faster still, by well over a minute, than Haitink at 21:56. But this is just the first movement. How do they all come out in the wash at the end? From fastest to slowest, they are Previn, 51:43; Davis, 52: 49; Haitink, 53:41; Sinopoli, 55:18. So, Davis, it turns out is no slowpoke and actually comes in just behind Previn. All of them, however, are tortoises compared to Elgar’s own 1931 recording for HMV, which finishes in 46 and a half minutes.
But there are other differences to be noted as well, most, but not all, having to do with orchestral execution and sound. Haitink’s and Sinopoli’s Philharmonia of 27 and 20 years ago, respectively, sounds a bit tentative and wan. There’s no question but that the orchestra under Davis in 2007 is in better estate. There’s also the matter of the individual readings. Haitink manages to make Elgar’s
nobilimente e semplice
sound more like a dirge than a ceremonial march, while Sinopoli seems to think it’s a lullaby. Previn, with the Royal Philharmonic, gets the stride of it right, but his orchestra also sounds somewhat anemic. Perhaps it’s the 25-year-old recording that’s at fault. A direct comparison of these four versions leaves no doubt in my mind that the new Davis is the hands-down winner. His reading of the score strikes me as being especially receptive to Elgar’s muse, capturing to perfection its rapidly changing moods and colors. Much in the main Allegro of the first movement is indebted to Wagner, while the second movement, marked
but functionally a scherzo, owes something to Mendelssohn. But the Adagio is pure Elgar and a movement of such aching, breathtaking beauty I’m tempted to compare it to the famous Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Overture, which opens the disc, is not an overture
anything; it’s a pure concert overture intended to evoke the chivalric chronicles of the 14th-century Jean Froissart. At 15 minutes in length and considering the heraldic pageantry it portrays, the piece is actually more tone poem than overture, but let’s not quibble over nomenclature. Elgar imagined a romantic age of armor-clad knights courting maidens wearing chastity belts. I, on the other hand, imagine an age of pestilence, plague, and privation, and everywhere barbarians at the gates. Davis leads a spot-on performance that receives several bravos at the end.
If the first decade of the 20th century was a good time for symphonies, the second decade, maybe not so much. Kicking it off in 1911 were Sibelius’s
, his Fourth Symphony, which shocked the composer as much at having written it as it did the audiences that heard it; Mahler’s
Das Lied von der Erde
, if you consider it a symphony; and Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, the second of three he would write. Hastily composed and dedicated to the recently deceased King Edward VII, the work was coolly received by public and critics alike, and it has never quite gained the traction that the First Symphony has. To me, the Second sounds less of a piece than the First, and though the Larghetto rises to a stirring climax, the work as a whole strikes me as less melodically inspired and a bit wayward in its progress.
Other than the same usual suspects encountered in the First Symphony—Haitink, Sinopoli, and Previn, this time with the LSO—a 1960s vintage EMI recording with Adrian Boult leading the London Philharmonic has been highly touted by some critics, as has the more recent LSO Live performance led by Colin Davis. The thing with Elgar symphony recordings is that many of them come packaged as sets, so if you buy conductor A’s First Symphony and conductor B’s Second, you’re likely to end up with duplicate versions of both symphonies or even all three of them. That may not be a bad thing, because the music is surely worthy of multiple recordings.
It appears that this new two-disc Signum set is selling at a reduced price, but given the quality of the performances and the recordings, I would give it a gold-star recommendation even at full price.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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