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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Overture: The Hebrides (1829-30) [11:28]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55 (1907) [57:48]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate
rec. live, The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne, 24-25 June 2005
ABC CLASSICS 476 8365 [70:18]

ABC Classics’ ‘MSO Live’ series looks like becoming a significant part of their catalogue. Judging by the quality of some of the discs which have been sent my way recently, they are soundly justified in investing in these performances. The recordings on this disc are very well recorded, with Melbourne’s Hamer Hall acoustic suiting large symphonic resources and providing just the right amount of resonance - neither dry nor swampy. There is some creaking from the stage and the odd cough from the audience - a shame that the final al niente moment of the first movement of the Elgar is clouded by a glottal explosion somewhere - but these are usually low-level disturbances, and the live atmosphere is well worth the odd squeak here and there.

Starting with The Hebrides Overture (yes, "Fingals’ Cave" in case you were wondering), Tate’s tempo is measured and relatively gentle, allowing the gorgeous themes to unfold, expand and develop in an unhurried fashion. This works well enough to start with, but the development sequences have a tendency to be a little leaden-footed, and the stormier moments end up rather stodgy – Christmas Pudding at sea, and not helped by some rather flat flute solos. This is not really a bad performance, just not very exciting – and not likely to have your ‘O’ Level exam candidates on the edge of their seats.

A similar expansive breadth marks the opening of Elgar’s first symphony, giving it a Brahmsian weight which Tate sustains throughout. The Melbourne orchestra shows itself more than capable of expressing Elgar’s virtuosic orchestration, surprisingly complex counterpoint, turbulent changes of mood and dynamic flow of ideas. Again, Tate’s 22:30 timing for the first movement is by no means the most compact, but the remarkable structure isn’t lost in needless wallowing, and the development is charged and involving. A brisk and efficient Allegro molto second movement runs straight into the famously eloquent Adagio whose opening moments briefly recall that of the transition to ‘Nimrod’. With a vastly greater symphonic canvas to fill Elgar takes his time, building the movement with elements of almost Mahlerian intensity. This may not be the performance to beat all performances or recordings, but all of the right elements are here: warmly silken strings, pungent winds and brass with power in reserve. It might just be me, but I felt myself urging the pace to move just a little more in a forward direction. Having heard Elgar’s own conducting in the recent Naxos Historical issue, I could sense his Edwardian moustache twitching just fractionally with impatience (‘get on boy!’), but the playing is good, and there are many beautiful moments. The same might be said for the opening of the final Lento-allegro but placed against the restless energy of the main movement, the slow, searching introduction becomes more logical. The final return of the main theme is striking and impressive, although for some reason one trumpet seems to stick out a touch uncomfortably, almost like the lead solo in a jazz big-band.

Summing up, this is a worthwhile and apparently accurate representation of what must have been a memorable concert. The Melbourne orchestra seems to be on good form, and take to Elgar like a Duck to orange sauce. If the whole seems to lack that last ounce of sparkle or oomph then that has to be the difference between a truly great performance and only a very fine one. I for one enjoyed the ride, and if the repertoire interests you, would have no hesitation in suggesting you buy a ticket for the best seat in the house.

Dominy Clements

 

 



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