> ELGAR Symphonies Barenboim SB2K89976 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2
Overture; Cockaigne
Serenade for String Orchestra *
Elegy for String Orchestra *
Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra *
Martin Gatt, bassoon
London Philharmonic Orchestra
English Chamber Orchestra *
Daniel Barenboim
Recorded 1973-75
SONY SB2K89976 [2 CDs 145’08]


No recording dates, no recording locations, just a cursory note in tiny print that this Sony double consists of previously issued material. These things are surely not unimportant and are the bare minimum one should expect: time for Sony to do its job properly. I have often admired Barenboim’s way with Elgar and find much here that is admirable, compelling and moving but have never quite been able to reconcile myself to some of the more obvious points of contention that run throughout this set of the orchestral works. This is mostly to do with tempo and tempo-relation, with accelerandos and agogic displacements, and with resultant retardation of momentum, especially, though not exclusively, in the Symphonies.

He varies the dynamics in the opening nobilmente statement of the First Symphony, complete with associated excessive rubato and rhetorical pause and diminuendo. What he succeeds in doing is revealing a wealth of orchestral detail often obscured as well as the vigorous clarity of the trumpets (sometimes perhaps a little too cutting and declamatory). He pulls around the musical syntax from 16’00 with a sense of crescendo-decrescendo manipulation but how admirable is the gossamer light string playing from 18’20 and the answering phrasing from the woodwind choir. Throughout, in fact, the LPO’s playing is of an elevated standard, the violins responding with a lush sweetness and occasional portamento to Barenboim’s entreaties. The transitional material in the scherzo is rather better handled here but the results are still rather hobbled. There’s a lack of defining vigour and animation about this kind of music making that slackens the Symphony’s profile. Barenboim is an affectionate – perhaps too indulgently affectionate – Elgarian. In the Adagio there is an intensity of feeling in the string lines – sample 3’20 – that one does not often hear and at 11’20 an extreme string diminuendo that, whilst affecting and beautifully done, doesn’t emerge fully prepared and consequently appears manufactured and not organic. There is no sense of, for want of a better word, ecstasy at 6’30 in the finale, but instead a kind of recollection in tranquillity, firmly muted dynamics that sew the passage into the fabric of the score. The convulsive conclusion emerges as rather soft grained as a result, with a distinct lack of overwhelming conclusiveness.

The recording of the Second Symphony evinces similar virtues and limitations. Transitional material again appears rather manufactured with unnecessary seeming rhythmic licence and still the ever-present Barenboim rhetorical pause. Co-existing with these are the strong string voicings, the conclusive and confident horn parts and a genuine sense of symphonic argument. Free rein is given to the lower strings at 3’20 in the Larghetto and there is real and passionate intensity at 11’50 – though in between the first violins’ entry point at 5’35 sounds just too rehearsed. As with the scherzo – Allegro Molto – of the First, I find Barenboim reluctant fully to explore the Rondo of the Second though there is again magnificent orchestral panache on display here. Barenboim sounds very slightly too slow in the opening of the finale – which makes management of tempo-related decisions difficult and too abrupt. But how stylish and life affirming the playing is here and how well Barenboim moulds, on his own terms, the final pages.

Cockaigne receives a performance strong on inner detail, weaker on matters of structure. The oboe detailing is exquisite, there is some succulent string portamanti, which never quite sounds natural enough, and tempo decisions are, to my ears, botched. Cello counter-themes emerge, playful and important, it’s true, and there are some instructively abrupt accents by bass and horns but it’s all a little disparate and flimsy. Martin Gatt makes a persuasive case for the light little Romance for Bassoon accompanied this time, as in the Serenade and Elegy, by the English Chamber Orchestra. The former sounds a little overcooked emotionally with a quasi-symphonic larghetto and the latter is delightful.

The sound has come up exceptionally well with adept pointing of a myriad of orchestral felicities. The performances are more controversial but still passionately engaged and flooded with life.

Jonathan Woolf

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