> Edward Elgar - Symphonies Nos. 1-3 [WH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 (1908)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 (1911)
Symphony 3 in C minor (Sketches elaborated by Anthony Payne)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis
Recorded live at the Barbican Centre, London, UK, September – December 2001


LSO LIVE LSO 0017 [54.48] (No. 1)

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LSO LIVE LSO 0018 [57.38] (No. 2)

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LSO LIVE LSO 0019 [57.33] (No. 3)

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In the July 2002 issue of International Record Review, Piers Burton-Page, reflecting on the work of the music critic, wrote as follows: "No point in telling them how to play: rather, assume that every tempo, or phrasing, is consciously meant, and ask yourself why the choice is made." I was immediately struck by these words, and they are even more in my mind now as I’m called upon to give my opinion on Sir Colin Davis’s readings of the three Elgar symphonies.

Of course if I actually liked these performances I think things would be different – provided you stay in your place even top professionals are happy to accept praise – but unfortunately I don’t. A listener can certainly spend many profitable hours asking himself "why the choice is made" in these cases, but whether they represent even an admirable attempt to present Elgar’s scores in the best possible light is very much open to question.

I have many Colin Davis interpretations on disc, and most of them are absolutely marvellous. From Mozart to Tippett, from Haydn to Stravinsky, he sheds new light on work after work, injecting the music with life and revealing its structure in ways other conductors don’t always manage. His recent Berlioz performances on LSO Live have sometimes surpassed even his own earlier, pioneering efforts. So I was looking forward enormously to hearing his Elgar symphonies – all the more so having read several reviews – but the reality, though highly instructive, has been a disappointment.

We have a forewarning of Davis’s manner at the outset with the way he pulls up the tempo at the end of the ninth bar of the first symphony’s opening movement, just before the restatement of the main theme. This is an important rhetorical gesture a matter of seconds into the work, especially in music of such textural and thematic simplicity, but it sets the tone for what follows. I think this must be the slowest introduction on record, but if not, it seems the slowest; so slow, in fact, that it feels like a separate thing altogether, when it should – like the first movement introduction of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique – be a preparation for what follows. The effect is heavy, even funereal. Davis is very interventionist in the allegro which follows, making expressive points in places other than where the composer’s markings ask for them. And Elgar was no slouch where markings were concerned: the scores are showered with indications, not always absolutely clear, sometimes apparently contradictory, but giving the conductor much food for thought. Davis is not satisfied with this, and he inserts all kinds of things of his own. Unfortunately, his main expressive device is to take extra time over certain moments, and this often within the context of a principal tempo which is already on the slow side. Time and again the music is held back to underline some small thematic feature, often, as at the ninth bar of the piece, at the ends of phrases. This gives a disjointed, stop-go feel to the longer movements, leaving the listener impatiently asking why he won’t leave things alone and simply get on with it. Certain moments, unforgivably, even outstay their welcome. There are times, too, where the point of the music seems to be lacking. Where is the fantasy in the wonderful passage which begins with the solo violin around 11’00", again in the first movement, just before figure 30 in the score? And the passage beginning at figure 44 (around 12’00") gives little sense of the music straining at the limits (in spite of the conductor’s groans, of which more later). The release which should be engendered by the return of the main theme which follows seems muted too. Davis slows the music down very early to announce that the movement is coming to an end, but before then the tempo has been pulled about so much that there seems no logical reason for the music to stop there, the movement lacking in unity of thought or pulse.

The opening of the scherzo seems to go well, but the orchestral crashes lack power, perhaps a problem with the recording. The lovely second subject ("Play it like something we hear down by the river" Elgar famously said) is sadly lacking in the charm we might hope for when we know that the word amabile appears at several points in the score in this movement. And then Davis totally compromises the linking passage between the scherzo and the slow movement by imposing an unmarked rallentando which begins, in any case, preposterously early and is carried to extreme lengths where other conductors are content with far less as a way of easing the way into the adagio.

The slow movement is beautifully played, its inward atmosphere extremely concentrated, though even here one would think that every crescendo indication was accompanied by an accelerando. And then the final section of the movement – surely one of the most beautiful passages in all Elgar – is treated by Davis is such a way that the music seems in danger of stopping altogether. It is technically brilliant, but the concentration of the music is fatally undermined. True, it is marked molto espressivo e sostenuto (very expressive and sustained) but there is an excess here which is distasteful. I hear the conductor stretching it out, relishing his hold on the public, and it may well have worked as a one-off hearing in the concert hall – though I have my doubts – but it’s too gruesome for repeated listening. The final bars of the movement are unbearably drawn out.

The introduction to the finale is very expressive in what we have by now come to recognise as the conductor’s current style, but the allegro goes well, at least until figure 129 (6’20") when he suddenly applies the brakes, announcing a reading of the sublime passage where the strings and harps play the second subject in augmented note values in which the pulse is so lovingly moulded and varied that the music is robbed of its impulsiveness and passion. The final pages are magnificently played, but I don’t think that even in the heat of the moment I would have joined in the applause which follows with enormous enthusiasm. Even the Phantom Bravo Shouter – whoever this philistine is he goes to lots of concerts these days – seems to be caught slightly off guard. It’s all very puzzling: I remember a concert performance in London many years ago conducted by Bryden Thomson where the return of the second theme of the scherzo virtually had us cheering, so inevitable and well-placed did it seem, and the propulsion not only of the finale, but of the symphony as a whole had us out of our seats the instant we heard that final timpani stroke. Davis’s performance follows so many byways and looks lovingly into so many nooks and crannies that by the time we get to the end we’ve forgotten what the beginning was about.

Many of the same comments may be made about the second symphony. For this listener at least, the beginning is a disaster. Stephen Johnson, in the accompanying notes, quite rightly says that the first three notes of the symphony act as a kind of springboard from the which the first movement leaps in all its vitality. Well, not here it doesn’t. You wouldn’t even know there were three notes, nor that the second and third fall on the off-beat. The first note isn’t together, and the conductor is in full vocal flight before we arrive at the fourth note. (If the springboard is important to you, listen to Solti!) Throughout this first movement Davis indulges in extreme changes of tempo, and even more disturbingly repeatedly pulls back before passing into a new section or even to a new phrase. Any feeling of overall unity of pulse is lost. The wonderful passage between figures 23 and 30 (beginning at 6"07’) demonstrates well both of these points, as does the slow music just before the end. The last time I heard it as pulled about as this was on Jeffrey Tate’s recording on EMI, and although it’s a long time since I heard that disc I have memories of something much more organic and convincing than this.

I could go on. The self conscious phrasing of the main theme of the slow movement robs it of its simplicity. Indeed, twice in the movement the composer puts in the marking nobilmente e semplice. Well, nobilmente, maybe, but semplice it isn’t. The sudden dramatic pause at 9"57’ is utterly unjustified by any marking in the score (four bars before figure 81), nor is the equally sudden slowing down and horrible portamento at figure 130 (7"00’) in the scherzo, both features as offensive as they are ineffective.

I found a greater directness and simplicity of manner in the performance of the third symphony, at least at first. The opening is striking and muscular, and the beautiful second subject, though there is a characteristic change of tempo, seems better integrated into the overall structure than at similar points in the other symphonies. Even if I found the slow movement and finale less convincing than I remembered from other performances I still found this performance the most successful of the three. Of course I don’t know this symphony anything like as well as the other two, and I have never seen the score. Even so, when I started comparing this performance with the two existing ones I realised that both Andrew Davis and Paul Daniel maintain greater forward movement and drive almost throughout, so that even here Sir Colin seems to wallow by comparison. It’s important to understand here that I’m not talking about the music from one minute to the next – there are passages in all three symphonies where Sir Colin conjures up playing of electrifying intensity – but rather the overview of a movement, the feeling that the last note is the logical conclusion to the symphonic argument, indeed the only possible conclusion given what has gone before. I think he succeeds in the opening movement of the third symphony better than anywhere else, but Andrew Davis and Paul Daniel are both more successful in the two final movements at bringing out the structure of the work and revealing the symphonic logic contained in it.

All three works are superlatively executed by the London Symphony Orchestra. There is a brilliance, a conviction in this remarkably unanimous playing which is impossible to resist. The solo playing is marvellous too. The actual sound of the orchestra is compromised by the recording, however, which is dry and close, perhaps even more so in the third symphony than in the others. To what extent this is the result of problems posed by the hall I don’t feel qualified to say.

It is impossible to discuss these discs properly without drawing attention to the conductor’s vocal participation. In the first symphony these noises are a nuisance, in the third symphony rather more than that, and in the second they are quite intolerable. I challenge anybody not to wait, at every listening, teeth clenched, for the noise he makes at 17’48", mere seconds before the end of the first movement of the second symphony. Now lots of conductors make noises, I know. Michel Plasson’s encouragements to the orchestra can be distracting in concert (though he seems to be able to discipline himself in the studio) and Barbirolli sometimes sounded as though he was choking. And then I once attended a recital in London given by the great French cellist Pierre Fournier, during which he constantly tapped his foot, frustratingly out of time with the music. But never on disc have I heard anything like this. During many of the quieter passages of the second and third symphonies he actually seems to be singing. I’d like to be able to say it doesn’t matter, but it does.

The presentation of the three discs is impressive, especially at the price. There is an essay on each symphony by Stephen Johnson, each one a model of its kind, though he repeats points made by Anthony Payne when talking about the third symphony. The rather lurid colours chosen do not always make the booklets very easy to read.

At the price, of course, these issues are tempting, and as a great conductor’s mature view of these works, every lover of Elgar’s music should hear them. I believe they give an erroneous impression of the composer’s music, however, and therefore newcomers should avoid them. There are many excellent versions of these symphonies which will do very well, most of them at bargain price. Barbirolli (EMI) has been accused, rightly, of being rather too concerned with incidental moments of beauty, but his glorious readings, expansive as they are, are models of self restraint in the present company. Sir Adrian Boult’s readings (EMI) represent an entire life devoted to and at the service of this composer and his music. Sir Andrew Davis (Warner) gives straightforward readings which are totally convincing and totally recommendable. And then, surprisingly perhaps, there is Solti, who studied the composer’s own recordings before launching himself into these works. The results, newly reissued on Decca, are stunning. The first movement of the second symphony, to give a single example, is a torrent of white-hot genius, quite unmissable. In a similar vein is a startling performance of the first symphony recorded in 1990 for IMP Classics by the Hallé Orchestra and James Judd. There are excellent performances on Naxos too: George Hurst conducts a convincing if slightly understated No. 1, but Sir Edward Downes’ reading of No. 2 with the BBC Philharmonic on stunning form is one of the great recorded interpretations. He is particularly successful in the elusive finale, a movement which can appear to have no climax and seem therefore inconclusive ("What’s the matter with them, Billy?" asked Elgar of the first-night audience, "They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.") As to the third symphony, Sir Andrew Davis (NMC) and Paul Daniel (Naxos) are both to be recommended.

To return to the question at the beginning of this review, I find it difficult to understand many of the interpretative choices made by Sir Colin Davis when confronted by these works. He is obviously at the height of his considerable technical powers. The orchestra plays as a single being, following him like a perfectly maintained machine through these most fluid and convoluted readings of what is already extremely complex music. In an interview last year in the Gramophone he spoke about the exhilarating effect of recording music he loves live in concert, and of his feeling that "I’ll never be able to conduct as well as I can now". Certain aspects of his readings which strike me as mannerism or self indulgence, the horrible dramatic pauses, for example, are obviously the results of long and detailed reflection on the way he wants the music to go. But as to the incidental slowing, the protraction at cadence points and phrase endings, I wonder to what extent he would have maintained these had the recordings taken place in the studio with the opportunity to listen to playbacks and modify thereafter.

Elgar’s personality was a complex one. His relationship with Jaeger and his reaction to his wife’s death demonstrate the extent to which he needed the love and support of those dearest to him. Professional setbacks provoked extreme reactions: "…I have allowed my heart to open once – it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever." There seems little doubt that he was touchy and thin-skinned; in short, a far from perfect individual. Yet reading the biographies, in particular Michael Kennedy’s unforgettable Portrait of Elgar (OUP) we can learn how he poured into his music not only what he was himself but also the best of what he saw and hoped for in humankind. Thus we hear in his works, along with the melancholy, the wistfulness and disappointment, rather than simple, human warmth, a certain nobility of spirit, justice and generosity. This is not to mention the humour and high spirits; the muscularity; the febrile energy. In these symphonies Sir Colin Davis, with his incessant lingering over detail and his tendency to draw out to intolerable lengths those passages where the composer’s weaker side is most evident, commutes the spiritual strength of Elgar’s music into lachrymose self pity.

William Hedley

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