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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.1 in A flat major Op.55 (1908) [56.34]
Cockaigne Overture (In London Town) Op.40 (1901) [16.34]
Thüringen Philharmonie Suhl/Stephen Somary
Recorded in Suhl, February 1996
CLAVES CD 50-9813 [73.12]

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.

Jonathan Woolf

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