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Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
Symphony No.1, in Ab, op.55 (1907/1908) [52:07]
In the South (Alassio), op.50 (1904) [20:54]
In Moonlight (Canto popolare) (1904) [2:59]
Christine Rice (mezzo), Mark Elder (piano); Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder
rec. 11 and 12 September 2001, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Symphony); 7 July 2002, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester (In the South); 17 October 2002, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Canto popolare) DDD
HALLÉ CDHLL 7500 [76:27]

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Elgar’s 1st Symphony will always have a special place in the repertoire of the Hallé Orchestra for it was that orchestra which premièred the work under the direction of Hans Richter at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. During rehearsals, Richter, to whom the work was dedicated, said, "[it is] the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer — and not only in this country." At the time this might have appeared somewhat extravagant but, with hindsight, we know that he was right. Although there were British Symphonies prior to this – Cipriani Potter (c10), George Macfarren (9) and William Sterndale Bennett (5) – there was no precedent for a work of such scale in the Land ohne Musik.

The 1st Symphony isn’t as opulent, nor as complicated, as the 2nd, but even so it is richly scored, what a master of the orchestra Elgar was!, and there is an element of fantasy about the working out of its themes, so close attention is necessary in order to follow the argument. The whole work is held together by a motto theme, heard at the outset, which binds the music together and returns at the very end to bring the Symphony to a triumphant conclusion. The Symphony has been recorded many times, by, just to mention my favourites, Bryden Thomson, Bernard Haitink, Vernon Handley, George Hurst, not to mention three each by Boult and Barbirolli and, best of all, by the composer himself in 1930, so any new recording has a major challenge on its hands in the face of such stiff competition. It’s most satisfying to report that Mark Elder and his orchestra rise to the challenge and give a very fine performance indeed.

Beginning very quietly with the motto, the Symphony begins decisively, yet with a withdrawn air and after two statements of the motto – one quiet, one loud – the music launches into a full bloodied allegro and the main body of the movement gets under way. And what a movement it is! A vital first subject, more restrained second theme, and a working out of some complexity. There’s many felicitous touches of orchestration – the muted horns at the start of the development section, the back desks of the strings playing the motto at the end of the movement – and when the full orchestra is called for, such as at the climactic moment, Elgar unleashes a sound of such power that we are rivetted to the spot with the overwhelming authority of his vision.

The scherzo, second, movement starts with scurrying violins over a rolling accompaniment. Martial music fills the air until the trio which, Elgar said, should be played like something you hear by the river and the delicate interplay of solo violin and flutes is delectable. A reprise of the scherzo and the music slows down and leads, without pause into the slow movement which is based on an idea made from the same notes as the scherzo but slowed down so as to be unrecognisable. This Adagio is both the heart of the Symphony and the heart of Elgar himself. It is a noble utterance, controlled and majestic, and spends its time musing on two basic ideas.

The finale begins in gloomy times, bass clarinet and bassoons giving two ideas and there appearing to be no obvious way for the music to go. But just as we think that Elgar might have got lost, as in the first movement fast music tears across the landscape and rushes away. A quieter middle section, with a recollection of the motto and off we go again until the coda brings back the motto in full orchestral garb, with swirling violins and brass resplendent. It’s a fitting and truly magnificent ending to any symphonic work and Elgar’s peroration is quite something to behold.

Elder and the Hallé perform like men possessed, giving their all to Elgar and producing a performance of great intelligence and passion. The recording is a bit distant so you will need to turn up the volume to get the full effect of the performance, but this allows for a very wide dynamic range. This performance can easily take its place beside the performances I listed earlier and, while I wouldn’t put it above Barbirolli’s two performances with the same orchestra – the 1956 recording is available on BARBIROLLI SOCIETY CDSJB 1017, and a live performance, the last performance he gave of the work from the King’s Lynn Festival, on 24 July 1970, four days before his death, is available on BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4106-2 coupled with Introduction and Allegro from the same concert – or Boult’s 1949 account with the London Philharmonic which is available on TESTAMENT SBT1229, coupled with a cracking In the South, and his final Prom performance of the work, from 28 July 1976, was issued as a free disk with the BBC Music Magazine in August 2006, Volume 14 no.12, and this is well worth looking out for – it can more than hold its own.

This Elgar 1 is good, but In the South is even better! There’s a magnificent sweep to this performance and Elder gets to grips with the music from the outset – this work is rather diffuse in its argument so it needs a strong hand at the helm – especially impressive is the section depicting the "relentless and domineering onward force of ancient Rome" and the In Moonlight section is wistful and has a lovely viola solo, played by Timothy Pooley. This is one of the best accounts of this work I have ever heard. The recorded sound is fuller than the Symphony and there’s lots of presence and a very wide dynamic range.

To end, the song that Elgar made from the In Moonlight section of the Overture. It’s a negligible piece – Elgar’s songs are not amongst his best achievements - and I shan’t be returning to it in an hurry.

Apart from my usual whine of why aren’t the fillers put first so we can enjoy the main event without hindrance of something following it, this is a very good disk and well worth having for, if not better than Barbirolli and Boult, it certainly complements them. There’s also a short essay by Michael Kennedy in the booklet and he’s always worth reading.

Bob Briggs

 

 

 


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