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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.1 Op.55 (1908) [52. 07]
In the South Op.50 (1904) [20.54]
In Moonlight (Canto popolare) (1904) [2.59]
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder (conductor/piano)
Timothy Pooley (viola)
Christine Rice (mezzo soprano)
rec Bridgewater Hall/BBC Studio 7, Manchester in July 2002/September 2001/October 2002
HALLÉ CD HLL 7500 [76’27"]



Mark Elder is making something of a name for himself as an Elgarian, and is in the best of possible places to do so considering that his predecessors in his post in Manchester include Richter, Harty and Barbirolli. On the other hand that roll call could make it a hard act to follow. The full orchestra is listed at the back of the booklet, and one wonders how many of them were playing in Barbirolli’s day thirty odd years ago, for the three conductors listed above formed a fairly continuous line to pass on the tradition, while Elgar himself was a frequent guest and friend to all three men. That does not happen these days. Now we have moved on, the Free Trade has given way to the Bridgewater Hall. Michael Kennedy has given the Elder era his blessing and quite rightly so, the first movement of the symphony, right from its stately outset is full of Elgarian ebb and flow in terms of its rubato, and the balance of tempi is generally finely judged. The scherzo fizzes with excitement, tautly controlled in its dynamic range and colourfully judged in highlighting instrumental solos of the moment, although Lyn Fletcher’s sweet tone as leader could have been given more prominence. The link to the Adagio is particularly effective in its tension, the interpretation never self-indulgent. Elder’s background in opera is at its dramatic best in the introduction to the finale, where the opening bass-clarinet and bassoon transport the listener into the realms of Nibelheim. I have never heard the combined first and second trombones sound so effective (just a hair’s breadth on the right side of vulgarity) at the second half of the bar at fig.110. The back-desk string players clearly enjoy their fifteen bars of fame (they even get another chance to shine later), and then the Allegro itself gets underway at what seems like an overly-hurried tempo, but actually turns out to be a shade under the composer’s marking of minim/84. The second thematic idea at figure 114 and again at figure 137 correctly ignores the piano dynamic (Elgar told Richter on 3 October 1909 that it should be forte), the Hallé brass blaze away as the movement develops, and the woodwind triplets at figure 127 are prominent where over-exuberant violas and cellos often smother them. Figure 130 threatens overt sentimentality (it’s a hard moment to resist and one never wants it to be over in my experience of conducting this symphony), but the outburst at the climactic top B flat half a dozen bars before figure 134 is effective only because of a finely controlled crescendo, held back until the last possible moment. I regret the absence of the Barbirollian hiatus across the barline four and three bars before figure 143, but the portamento linking G to D in the first violins at the second and third bars of figure 144 is a stylish touch, while the brass in this passage are superb. Elder does not hang around at the stringendo, more like a subito piu mosso, its excitement topped by a final crescendo to the last chord, which will satisfy.

This generous supply of Elgar continues with an equally exciting account of In the South (Alassio), the Hallé at its best, the glorious horns enjoying their moments of Richard Strauss. This is hardly surprising, as Elder’s forays into that composer’s operas were always highly rewarding experiences at English National Opera during his heyday there as Music Director in the 1980s. His interpretation emphatically underscores the mutual admiration between Elgar and Strauss, with lush string textures followed in stark contrast by the edgy brittleness of the ‘conflict of armies’ section between figures 20-26. Timothy Pooley’s excellent viola solo has delicate poignancy, inspiring Laurence Rogers (principal horn) to a couple of lyrically shaped responses. Then it’s back to more Strauss (those single allargando bars of four quavers straight out of Rosenkavalier), though the Elgarian fingerprints are never far away, such as the occasional connecting portamento in the strings. From figure 53 more excitement is generated by ever-increasing speeds and meticulously observed dynamic changes (Elgar and his masterly use of sudden changes to piano), but as is so often the case with Elgar, it’s the horns who lead a hero’s life, or in this instance a Heldenleben.

In July 1904, three months after In the South was given its first performance, Elgar set some verses by Shelley to the canto popolare and called it ‘In the Moonlight’. With the viola solo fresh in the ear it makes a fitting conclusion to this disc, and Christine Rice sings it with both feeling and warmth of tone.

Christopher Fifield

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