It takes commendable
spirit for a lesser known orchestra
to take a punt on a big work like Elgarís
A flat minor symphony. This is still
more the case when the orchestra is
the Thüringen Philharmonie, which
can have little or no track record of
playing the work. The recording was
made back in 1996 and it should be noted
at the outset that Somary studied in
London with a doughty and thoroughly
effective Elgarian, Norman del Mar,
at the Royal College and subsequently
served as assistant to two thoroughly
distinct Americans, Leonards Bernstein
and Slatkin Ė both of them Elgarians
of varying depth of affiliation.
This is a First Symphony
that will not greatly convince, however.
Itís not so much tempi Ė very slow in
the outer movements and significantly
so in the slow movement, so much as
a fatal lack of drive and animation.
The first movement is one of Elgarís
most complex and problematic symphonic
statements and needs to be handled with
considerable understanding if itís not
to seem diffuse. Here the band sounds
somewhat at sea; the opening tread sounds
not even portentous; itís positively
penitential with a tread that dissolves
into amorphous gesture. Tension is the
thing here, whether itís Soltiís quicksilver
nervousness or Barbirolliís stately
declamation; tempo is a secondary consideration.
The performance never really recovers
momentum or a sense of diving arching
span. The percussion section seems to
have been recorded in Valhalla and the
internal balances are askew; the syntax
is sticky and the sense of lurching
omnipresent. Iím afraid itís a galumphing,
halting performance; rather like trying
to speak a foreign language without
knowing any verbs.
There are however points
of interest; the very fast Scherzo for
instance, faster even than Handleyís,
and much faster than Elgarís own LSO
recording shows that the symphony can
withstand such tempo extremes (even
though letís be honest Ė here it sounds
four-square, brusque and just a little
vulgar Ė and puts one in mind of all
those New York critics of the 1940s
and their epicene criticisms of Elgar).
The Adagio is very slow indeed but thereís
no point doing a Barbirolli if one lacks
his sense of symphonic cohesion and
emotional commitedness. Here is definitely
a case of slow tempo not equating warmth
of sympathy not least from the undercooked
band. Weird balances afflict the finale;
the opening of the finale is supposed
to mirror the nobilmente opening I would
guess but Iím afraid the performance
ran out of steam a long time before.
Cockaigne is marginally
better but the fiddles are swamped by
the brass and thereís a Brucknerian
quality to the overture that amazes.
Not in a good way.
So Iím afraid this
is a non-starter in the Symphony stakes.
For a measured view the Barbirolli-Philharmonia
is the model of this one I would suppose
but Iíd equally prefer his earlier Hallé
or the final live performance in 1970.
I donít much like Colin Davisís Elgar
and find the Barbican recordings too
italicised Ė but they have approximately
the same kind of tempo relations as
this one but of course on a different
communicative and executant level entirely.