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.