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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No.1, Op.55 (1908) [46:28]
Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C minor, Op.68 (1913) [33:07]
London Symphony Orchestra/Edward Elgar
rec. 20-22 November 1930, Kingsway Hall, London (Symphony); 11-12 November 1931 and 4 February 1932, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London (Falstaff)
Experience Classicsonline

Having had a very good experience with the Naxos Historical re-mastering of Elgar conducting the Enigma Variations, I jumped at the chance to listen to what Mark Obert-Thorn had made of the more or less contemporaneous recordings of the Symphony No.1 and Falstaff.

I do feel somewhat privileged to be able to experience the state-of-the-art in this music, represented by a marvellous recording on Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox, and the very earliest of recordings conducted by the composer himself. For a start these old recordings have brushed up remarkably well. There is an ongoing gnash of shellac underlying the whole thing, but a de-clicking module has removed most of the surface hash without squashing the treble in the music or the dynamic range in the sound. These are of course elderly mono recordings, and are a little thin and desiccated in places, but so would you be after 79 years. I was going to say it’s a bit like listening to Elgar through a telephone, but that would be unfair. Instrumental solos and orchestral texture are quite clear, and you can hear the London Symphony Orchestra playing their socks off from the deepest basses to the fine filaments of solo violin which rise above.

The Symphony No.1 is something of an enigma in this recording. Ian Julier mentions significant portions of the performance as being “lit by cool, undeniably beauty rather than honest inner revelation.” He adds that “It would be interesting to know whether Elgar would have conducted these passages in the same way twenty years earlier.” We can of course speculate, and Elgar’s own self-doubts and changes in attitude later in life no doubt play their role, but to my mind it is also of importance to bear in mind the kind of strangeness in which people lived in this period. Things had changed after World War I, but many things had also retained the appearance of staying the same. There was an underlying sense of the decay in the old order which can be sensed in literary works such as Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust of 1934, whose very title derives from even stranger and more modern stuff such as T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land of 1922. I hear Elgar dashing through the martial elements early into the second movement as if they were an embarrassing anachronism rather than statements of heroic intent. The dead of the Great War had yet to cast their stain on this music in 1908, and its symbolism may well have felt at odds with Elgar’s sensitivities thereafter.

The Adagio third movement is possibly less expansive and involving than one might expect, but this might be explained by the limitations of a recording situation such as it would have been in this period, with short takes and other artificial elements not really comparable with a live concert. This is still a fine performance and I’m not looking to make excuses, but neither am I always looking for deep psychological reasons for Elgar’s reading of his own music. There are still many elegiac and beautiful moments in this movement however, and the sense of shape and direction are as coherent and striking as any recording I know. The final Allegro drives with a great deal of urgency, but all of those nooks and corners of noble contrast are all present and correct. Anyone interested in comparing standards in orchestral playing then and now would be fascinated to hear how the LSO deal with this intense and athletic piece. Only one or two exposed violin passages reveal touches of strain, otherwise intonation and articulation are highly disciplined and a model for performers even today. The brass deserves particular mention in this regard, with plenty of refined colour in the sound, and well balanced almost entirely throughout.

Falstaff –Symphonic Study in C minor, Op.68 is well matched in terms of sound, though with the orchestra initially sounding a little more distant and less well defined in the new Abbey Road Studio No.1. This was the inaugural recording at this location, and everyone concerned seems to have taken to it like ducks to water. I used not to be such a fan of Elgar’s Falstaff, but the wit in the playing on this recording has gone some way towards restoring my affections for this programmatic tour de force. The nice thing about hearing the work in this eminent and ancient context is that the cinematic images which spring to mind are also grainy and black-and-white – a semantic synergy which seems to fit; hand in gauntlet. Again, the playing is marvellous, and while there are fewer moments of overt emotional involvement and connection amongst all that ‘rumpty pumpty’ orchestral barnstorming the gentler sections such as the Dream Interlude have a touching sensitivity. That bizarre, cut-off ending has never sounded quite so final: Falstaff really isn’t coming back after that, not even for a final curtain call. 

These are performances which rank highly in their own right, and Naxos have once again done us a remarkable service by bringing us Elgar’s own late interpretations in such refreshingly serviceable sound. These are ‘must have’ recordings for all genuine Elgar fans, and can teach us much about the man and the times. I’m glad to live in an age of hi-fi, but am equally fascinated by the view we can have of the past from this kind of recording – it’s about the closest we’re ever likely to come to time travel after all.
Dominy Clements


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