Notes and Editorial Reviews
In this job there is nothing quite like the shock of the unexpected. And this proud, brave, sonorous Elgar First was unexpected. Not because I don't believe that Jeffrey Tate still has great performances in him, but because after Slatkin (RCA) I simply could not imagine anyone taking the same dark, forbidding path to the heart of this symphony. Slatkin is still volatile like no one else in my experience: his unerring sense of the instabilities in this music, his masterly grasp of tempo relationships, his courage in pushing Elgar beyond prescribed limits—these are the qualities which make his account so special. But Tate is special too. The complexion of his reading is somewhat different: it's dark and turbulent, certainly, but unlike
Slatkin it always sounds invincible—triumph is an inevitability, not merely a probability.
A fine, upstanding nobilmente serves notice of the reading's fierce pride and imposing breadth. The LSO, currently unassailable among the London orchestras, serve notice too: the depth of their tutti sound (aided and abetted by EMI's handsome recording) is something that Elgar would have relished. Tate certainly does. As the processional fades from view and the music sinks to an expectant piano (amazing how the atmosphere of a performance is so quickly established), something potent is already stirring. It is an emphatic, muscular appassionato that carries the allegro forward. Big-boned LSO horns (spectacular) and trombones (ruthless in their quaver runs) present a defiant, even aggressive face throughout the rigours of this movement. Climaxes are resolute with lyric remnants tempest-tossed from one to the other: the episode (with solo violin) from about fig.30 is most beautiful, leading us tentatively to a moment of breathless stillness is sustained clarinets and horns, solo cello lending comfort in a single phrase (12'02"). When the second group's nostalgic dolce theme comes back into the picture at fig.38, the surrounding texture is as ear-catching as I've heard it.
Tate really embraces this music in all its extremes: he duly opens out the climax of high anxiety at fig.45 with trumpets crescendoing molto vibrato and a thrilling upward rush of chill wind from the horns; and how satisfyingly he and the LSO place the last pianissimo bars: the final chord, sounding ppp from low woodwinds, horns and strings has a depth of sonority which typifies the whole performance.
His tempo for the Scherzo does not take us to the edge of reason, as Slatkin does: again, the emphasis is on a kind of military weight with world-weary grimness conveyed in the extraordinary transition to the slow movement. The winddown in tempo and dynamics is uncommonly dramatic here, the sigh of resignation as we settle upon the first bar of the adagio properly heartstopping. Tate is more expansive than even Slatkin in the service of this long, lingering backward glance, tinged as it is with sentiments of hope and regret. With Slatkin I was never conscious of the speed; with Tate I have to say I am— on occasions, it's a whisper away from immobility. But again, what depth of sonority and spirit it holds.
This is an opulent, far-reaching, Wagnerian Elgar—broad arches of sound, a quiet nobility, a faded grandeur. The final statement of the theme is barely a murmur as past events drift further into the subconscious: in two notes, the solo clarinet (a pale dolce) eloquently puts the movement to rest. In its way, it is a moment as unashamedly operatic as Tate's sepulchral opening to the final movement. Listen to the eerie second harp in the ninth bar—that's a detail I hadn't registered before. Ample drama, then: a fevered switch into the allegro, a radiant transformation of the opening material in that most justly famous of all Elgarian transformations, and a coda of convulsive jubilance: Tate's LSO horns swell sensationally in their descants to the big tune.
One to hear, then, and hear again. Slatkin may still hold the palm for me, but I shall be coming Tate's way again, soon and often. He has put nothing finer on disc. The same goes for Cockaigne. Not a phrase goes by that isn't filled and enjoyed. Pomposity with a touch of vulgarity— 'old London town' is in full cry alright: an indignant growl from the trombones (4'38"), the arrival of the entire household cavalry (by the sound of it) for the marching band sequences, and a blazing peroration replete with organ and no stop unpulled—guaranteed to give patriotism a bad name.
Reviewing Symphony no 1 and Cockaigne Overture
Works on This Recording
Sospiri, Op. 70 by Sir Edward Elgar
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1914; England
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