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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.2 in E Flat Major, Op.63 (1911) [48:03]
First take of Rondo (to cue 116) [4:18]
Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op.85 (1919) [25:11]*
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar
Beatrice Harrison (cello), New Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar*
rec. 1 April, 15 July 1927, Queen's Hall, London; 23 March, 13 June 1928, Kingsway Hall, London*.  Mono AAD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111260 [77:31] 

 


These performances are essential listening for Elgarians.  Both are flawed in execution, but both are valuable historical documents.  The recording of the Second Symphony is more than that.  It is a genuinely exciting recording in its own right. 

Elgar was just a couple of months shy of his 70th birthday when he took up the baton to record his second symphony for the second time.  He had been dissatisfied with his acoustic recording of three years before, and he conducts this performance as if he has a point to prove.  Energy levels are high, and anyone expecting an autumnal reading from a musical elder statesman will be surprised. 

British performance tradition suggests that this symphony sounds best when taken at a stately pace.  Grandeur and glory certainly work, as proved by conductors including Boult, Barbirolli, and two of my favourites in this symphony, Sir Edward Downes and Vernon Handley.  But is this what Elgar had in mind?  On the evidence of this recording, no.  Elgar's tempi in each of the four movements, and in particular in the first and last movements, are swifter than expected.  Overall he shaves 8-10 minutes off the average performance time for this symphony.  For all the energy and drive of the swaggering first movement, the daemonic third and the unbuttoned finale, the second movement is touched by melancholy.  Everywhere there is energy and enthusiasm.  There is more zip and snap to this performance than you will find anywhere else.  This is not merely a matter of tempi.   Nowhere does this performance feel hard driven.  Instead, under Elgar's baton, you have a clear-eyed, unsentimental reading of a majestic score that is affecting simply because it does not try to be. 

Only two modern interpreters come close to matching Elgar in forward momentum and excitement in this symphony.  They are Sir Georg Solti, whose recording with the London Philharmonic on Decca is probably the most exciting of modern accounts, and Sir Yehudi Menuhin, whose recordings of the symphonies (Virgin 7243 5 61430 2 9) are real sleepers - relatively unheralded, but fantastically energetic. 

Both modern rivals win in the sonic stakes and orchestral execution.  The London Symphony Orchestra under Elgar is fallible.  The brass and strings cannot always keep up with Elgar's baton and there is an exposed trumpet gaff towards the end of the first movement, and the occasional cracked note from the horns.  Nonetheless, there is plenty to savour in their playing, including some wonderfully soupy portamento. 

The recording of the second symphony was made in a single day, April Fool's Day 1927, in a blur of industry.  The beginning of the third movement was re-recorded in July of the same year to get rid of a tapping sound that was worrying Fred Gaisberg.  Naxos has included the 1 April take of the beginning of the Rondo as a pendant to the symphony, and it makes for an interesting comparison.  I seem to remember that my 1970s Elgar conducts Elgar HMV LP, which currently languishes in a box in the garage, included alongside this alternative take a brief rehearsal extract on which Elgar's voice is just audible.  It would have been nice to have that snapshot here too, but you can hardly complain that Naxos is ungenerous in its coupling. 

Filling out the disc is Beatrice Harrison's pioneering recording of Elgar's cello concerto, again under the composer's baton, but this time accompanied by the New Symphony Orchestra (the London Symphony or London Philharmonic in a different guise?).  Harrison is no Casals or Du Pré, and although she plays with feeling, she has been bettered many times over in technique by cellists who followed.  She does not project a big tone in her first statement of the flowing theme of the first movement, and her playing lacks something in colour and nuance.  Occasionally her tuning also goes awry.  Nor is the orchestral playing always tidy.  Still, there is plenty of delightful detail, especially from he winds – including the contrabassoon that, though not in Elgar's score, was included to enhance the bass registers.  Again, though the performance hardly feels quick, Elgar's reading is taut and the recording takes a mere 25 minutes, rather than the half hour that is now common.  There is still some wallowing in the adagio, but precious little anywhere else. 

Sound engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has cleaned up the original source material with obvious care, and the results are impressive.  Of course, the 1920s sound is far from perfect, the dynamic range is constricted and the bass registers thin, but the transfers are honest and so is the music-making.  Ian Julier's erudite liner-notes complete an attractive reissue. 

Tim Perry 

 


 


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