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ELGAR - The Sketches for Symphony no 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paul Daniel.   NAXOS 8.554719 [54' 59'']

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The Andrew Davis/BBC Symphony Orchestra interpretation of the Elgar-Payne Symphony has lodged itself firmly in the public consciousness thanks to a deservedly best-selling CD (NMC D053), an unforgettable world première in a packed Royal Festival Hall and several broadcasts, including a memorable 1998 televised Prom performance. Big-boned, majestic and noble with every detail securely in place, Davis's conception is long-breathed and sure-footed. It has rightly held sway as the definitive reading if the score…until now!

Paul Daniel's new Naxos recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is conducted at white heat. Anthony Payne has described completing the sketches as of impelled to do so by forces outside himself and something of that overwhelming compulsion to unlock the agèd Elgar's last blazing vision also informs Daniel's feverish, urgent reading of the score. The Bournemouth orchestra has real bite in its attack and fire in its belly. The very opening bars of the Allegro molto moderato first movement have an edgy quality in the Naxos version: they fairly bristle with nervous energy. Much more than Andrew Davis, Daniel emphasises the contrast between the first subject and the meltingly beautiful cantabile second subject which Daniel imbues with a nostalgic glow (especially on its reappearance in the Recapitulation). The Naxos version includes a spectacular Development section (almost Mahlerian in its anguished outbursts) and there is a blistering, rough-hewn coda: a blaze of glory compared to Davis's stately peroration.

The Intermezzo-like Allegretto second movement also gains from Daniel's quicker tempo: fire and air next to Davies's statelier (and loftier) interpretation. However, in the great Adagio solenne third movement, Davis and the BBCSO plumb searing depths left relatively undisturbed by Daniel and his Bournemouth forces. The spellbinding più lento section which closes the Exposition (starting at bar 62 of the Novello score) unaccountably goes for little in Daniel's hands whereas Davis makes the passage teem with hushed fantasy. Nonetheless, taking the movement as a whole, Daniel does convey a grieving nobility that cannot fail to move the receptive listener.

In the Allegro Finale, the Bournemouth brass tear into the opening fanfare-like call-to-arms and the strings tackle their vigorous arpeggiated figures with fierce determination. The NMC version is more controlled and polished but ultimately less compelling in this movement. One cannot help but feel that for Andrew Davis the emotional climax of the Symphony (and its very heart and soul) is the glorious slow movement whilst Daniel places his interpretative emphasis on the outer movements, seizing upon the chivalric Finale to pick up the driving symphonic argument he underlines so strongly in the opening movement. In the visionary final bars, Daniel leaves the listener with fresh vistas opened up by the magical single tam-tam stroke.

Those who rightly prize their NMC Davis/BBCSO disc will find the new, admirably well-focused Naxos recording complements it perfectly. Davis's version remains ineluctably fine: pure granite set against the Naxos Young Pretender's electrifying force of Nature. The new reading grippingly captures the last flaring up of Elgar's "Spirit of Delight" and for listeners coming to the work for the first time it makes a superb budget-priced introduction to one of the most important British works to enter the mainstream repertoire for decades. Above all, Daniel and the Bournemouth SO make one marvel anew at the sheer bravery of Anthony Payne's undertaking and the raw genius of his (and Elgar's) achievement. Naxos could not have chosen a worthier disc to mark their 2000th release. Highly recommended.


Paul Conway


Paul Conway

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