performances are essential listening for Elgarians. Both are
flawed in execution, but both are valuable historical documents.
The recording of the Second Symphony is more than that. It
is a genuinely exciting recording in its own right.
was just a couple of months shy of his 70th birthday
when he took up the baton to record his second symphony for
the second time. He had been dissatisfied with his acoustic
recording of three years before, and he conducts this performance
as if he has a point to prove. Energy levels are high, and
anyone expecting an autumnal reading from a musical elder statesman
will be surprised.
performance tradition suggests that this symphony sounds best
when taken at a stately pace. Grandeur and glory certainly work,
as proved by conductors including Boult, Barbirolli, and two of
my favourites in this symphony, Sir
Edward Downes and Vernon
Handley. But is this what Elgar had in mind? On the evidence
of this recording, no. Elgar's tempi in each of the four movements,
and in particular in the first and last movements, are swifter
than expected. Overall he shaves 8-10 minutes off the average
performance time for this symphony. For all the energy and drive
of the swaggering first movement, the daemonic third and the unbuttoned
finale, the second movement is touched by melancholy. Everywhere
there is energy and enthusiasm. There is more zip and snap to
this performance than you will find anywhere else. This is not
merely a matter of tempi. Nowhere does this performance feel
hard driven. Instead, under Elgar's baton, you have a clear-eyed,
unsentimental reading of a majestic score that is affecting simply
because it does not try to be.
two modern interpreters come close to matching Elgar in forward
momentum and excitement in this symphony. They are Sir Georg
Solti, whose recording with the London Philharmonic on Decca
is probably the most exciting of modern accounts, and Sir Yehudi
Menuhin, whose recordings of the symphonies (Virgin 7243 5 61430
2 9) are real sleepers - relatively unheralded, but fantastically
modern rivals win in the sonic stakes and orchestral execution.
The London Symphony Orchestra under Elgar is fallible. The
brass and strings cannot always keep up with Elgar's baton and
there is an exposed trumpet gaff towards the end of the first
movement, and the occasional cracked note from the horns. Nonetheless,
there is plenty to savour in their playing, including some wonderfully
recording of the second symphony was made in a single day, April
Fool's Day 1927, in a blur of industry. The beginning of the
third movement was re-recorded in July of the same year to get
rid of a tapping sound that was worrying Fred Gaisberg. Naxos
has included the 1 April take of the beginning of the Rondo
as a pendant to the symphony, and it makes for an interesting
comparison. I seem to remember that my 1970s Elgar conducts
Elgar HMV LP, which currently languishes in a box in the garage,
included alongside this alternative take a brief rehearsal extract
on which Elgar's voice is just audible. It would have been
nice to have that snapshot here too, but you can hardly complain
that Naxos is ungenerous in its coupling.
out the disc is Beatrice Harrison's pioneering recording of
Elgar's cello concerto, again under the composer's baton, but
this time accompanied by the New Symphony Orchestra (the London
Symphony or London Philharmonic in a different guise?). Harrison
is no Casals or Du Pré, and although she plays with feeling,
she has been bettered many times over in technique by cellists
who followed. She does not project a big tone in her first
statement of the flowing theme of the first movement, and her
playing lacks something in colour and nuance. Occasionally
her tuning also goes awry. Nor is the orchestral playing always
tidy. Still, there is plenty of delightful detail, especially
from he winds – including the contrabassoon that, though not
in Elgar's score, was included to enhance the bass registers.
Again, though the performance hardly feels quick, Elgar's reading
is taut and the recording takes a mere 25 minutes, rather than
the half hour that is now common. There is still some wallowing
in the adagio, but precious little anywhere else.
engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has cleaned up the original source
material with obvious care, and the results are impressive.
Of course, the 1920s sound is far from perfect, the dynamic
range is constricted and the bass registers thin, but the transfers
are honest and so is the music-making. Ian Julier's erudite
liner-notes complete an attractive reissue.