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Edward ELGAR (1857 – 1934)
Symphony No. 2 in E Flat, Op. 63 (1911)
Introduction and Allegro for strings, Op. 47 (1905)
Song, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) read by Mark Elder
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Rec. BBC Studio 7 New Broadcasting House Manchester, 12-13 July 2003 (Symphony), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; 21 July 2003 (Introduction and Allegro); and 18 June 2004 (Song) DDD
HALLÉ CD HLL 7507 [75:30]

This recording has been raved about in the press so I was very interested to find out whether I agreed with all of the hype. Alas, I didn’t. Although it is exceptionally well played and recorded it is a little on the sleepy side. It is all played so safely; no trace at all of the passion one finds with Boult or Barbirolli. Elder has some way to go before he can challenge recordings made by these conductors head to head.

I have compared this performance with other famous and not so famous versions in the catalogue. In many cases I find that superior versions are to be had in the current lists ... and at much lower prices. This serves to make the present issue uncompetitive.

Even if we confine ourselves to the Hallé, Elder cannot hold a candle to their Barbirolli version for EMI (CDM 764 724-2, mid-price) where the passion radiates from the playing. Barbirolli’s first movement does not come to a grinding halt as Elder almost does - particularly at around six minutes in. Barbirolli is at much the same tempo here, but the playing of the Hallé is so much more alive in the earlier version. Remember that the Barbirolli was slated when it was first released because of its slow tempi.

The movement is marked Allegro vivace e nobilmente. In Elder’s hands it is neither happy nor especially noble. With Barbirolli, vivace it isn’t, but nobilmente it certainly is. When the tempo increases, the playing of Elder’s Hallé is very secure, but sounding more than a little bit tired, particularly when compared with Boult, also on EMI. In Boult’s version the climax really wells up into something quite extraordinary - very nobilmente. Boult slows down more than Elder, but this is put into perspective when the climax proper arrives. At that point Boult has the orchestra surging forward in a most impressive manner.

No-one can play the slow movement as well as Barbirolli; grunts and all. Elder is quite good here but not in the same class as his illustrious predecessor. Barbirolli conducts the largo fairly rapidly at 13’50" compared with Elder at 15’43". Unfortunately a slow speed does not automatically equate to emotion. I find the movement a bit static. There is much more forward movement in other performances. With Bernard Haitink and the Philharmonia there is an infinitely more experienced hand on the tiller. His years of experience with Bruckner adagios shows through. The quality of the Philharmonia’s playing easily matches that of the Hallé.

Without going into the same amount of detail for the scherzo and finale, the new version suffers from the same problems as the earlier movements although maybe slightly less seriously. The new recording is very good, but the earlier versions (all EMI) are more than adequate. Apart from minimal background noise are all in the top flight Abbey Road, All Saints Tooting and Kingsway Hall sound quality which EMI has been achieving over many years.

The Hallé recording has what I suspect is an error in the booklet for the locations for recording. Whilst they could be right the details are slightly suspicious. According to the case insert the Introduction and Allegro for strings was recorded at the Bridgewater Hall as was the spoken poem, (quite forgettable as it happens). Apparently the symphony was recorded in Studio 7 Broadcasting House, Manchester. Whilst this is perfectly possible, I cannot see why the Bridgewater Hall was not used for both orchestral recordings.

The Introduction for Strings is perfectly acceptable, but again I miss the passion of a Barbirolli or a Boult in this very demanding music.

Sorry, Hallé and Mr. Elder. Try to sound a little more interested in the music next time. I am sure that you have the ability to stun us one day, as you did with Sir John in 1966.

John Phillips

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