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Edward ELGAR (1865-1934)

Symphony No. 2 in E flat major op. 63 [56:35]
Alun HODDINOTT (b. 1929)
Investiture Dances (1969) [8.22]
National Youth Orchestra of Wales/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Prichard-Jones Hall, Bangor, 18-19 April 2006. DDD
THE DIVINE ART 25045 [64:57]




This version of Elgar 2 has a lot going for it but it is not going to dislodge the favoured few.

There is nothing amiss with the playing and the recording catches the subtle autumnal shades as well as the sable and ermine. Arwel Hughes knows this music extremely well so the orchestra are in safe hands. The style favours Boult's philosophical grandiloquence (yes, even in the 1940s recording) rather than Solti's and Svetlanov's passionate fervour. Where I expect to be transfixed by the scimitar lancing of the violins at the peak of the second movement we get instead a more staggered emphasis. Listen though to the lovely cradling of the passage at I (10:14 onwards). This reading has a marmoreal tone and a measured tread which places it in the Elgarian ‘mainstream’. Examples abound but try the slow movement at 8.29. Predictably, the quicksilver does not fly as it should in the third movement. This is music that can too easily lean towards a strangely sensational lethargy - part of the received Elgarian style.  Then again there are masterly touches in the poetically judged and weighted downward sigh of the symphony's last five minutes. This is done with wonderfully sustained sensitivity. 

The reader must beware my recommendations in Elgar. I favour Silvestri in In the South, Solti in the symphonies, Du Pré's live Philadelphia recording over the EMI Classics studio version, Barbirolli in Introduction and Allegro and Heifetz in the Violin Concerto. Though I tried hard with Boult and Menuhin in the symphonies and violin concerto they never held me. For me the Elgarian revelation came with a BBCTV relay of Solti's Elgar 2 in the early 1970s. Perhaps I am becoming a reformed character though: I surprised myself the other day by greatly enjoying Colin Davis's Proms 2006 broadcast of Elgar 2. This was despite its relaxed handling of the first two movements. The last two movements were all the more telling for the build-up achieved across the allegro and larghetto

After too short a silence come the three Hoddinott Investiture Dances. Hoddinott delivered the work for Prince Charles' Investiture at Caernarfon Castle. It is accessible music a good few leagues away from his symphonic style. Much the same can be said of Frankel and Arnold. These are really catchy, optimistic and heady pieces in the case of I and III. It is murmurously nostalgic in the case of II which has some kinship with similar haunting music in the Cornish Dances of Malcolm Arnold - another Celtic brother. He does not try the ‘pumped up’ treatment accorded to dance material by Grace Williams in her Ballads for Orchestra - a masterly piece but written with wholly different intentions. Hoddinott’s dances are superbly carried off by the young players. While Malcolm Arnold's dances deservedly enjoy multiple recordings I hope that the orchestral dances of Mathias and Hoddinott, which are every bit as good, are remembered and revived frequently. Interesting to note that the last recording of these dances was made by the same orchestra shortly after the premiere and issued on a Music for Pleasure LP. There the conductor was Arthur Davison, the NYOW’s music director for many years.

The notes by Peter Reynolds are outstandingly good having some fascinating touches woven in.

Rob Barnett


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