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

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Dylan Thomas) 

Edward Elgar may not quite have raged in his old age. He was far too much of a gentleman to do that. But neither could he be accused of merely fading quietly away for, even in the final years of his life the old man clearly enjoyed a challenge. Having passed his 75 birthday, he both accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a third symphony and took his first ever aeroplane flight – to Paris where he conducted a performance of his violin concerto with the young Yehudi Menuhin as soloist. Surprisingly, however, that is not a record: Elgar’s admirer Richard Strauss was to make his own first flight – to London in 1947 – at the ripe old age of 83! 

In that same late spirit of purposeful energy, from 1926 onwards Elgar had been systematically setting down on disc authoritative accounts of his own compositions - including the two symphonies, the violin concerto, the cello concerto, the Enigma variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches - using the latest electrical recording technology with its much improved sound. 

That whole recording project testified to the remarkable drive and determination that Elgar still exhibited well into his eighth decade – and, appropriately enough, when it comes to the individual interpretations that he set down on disc in those years, they too are frequently characterised by the same remarkable vim and vigour.

YouTube offers a fascinating, if tantalisingly brief, piece of film in which Elgar directs the London Symphony Orchestra in part of his Pomp and Circumstance march no.1 and, before he begins, asks the musicians to “play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before”. One suspects that he may well have adopted the same blowing-the-cobwebs-away approach in this recording of the first symphony, a score that can easily be – and has frequently been – played, on the contrary, as a sort of comfortable, nostalgic musical depiction of the British Empire at its zenith. 

Thus it is that this account of the opening movement is far more direct and purposeful than is often the case, wrapped up in just 17:14 (Barbirolli’s rightly much-admired live recording from the 1970 King’s Lynn Festival on BBC Legends BBCL 4106-2 adds no less than an extra 3½ minutes). Elgar is similarly forthright in the third movement adagio, with a timing of just 10:16: even Sir Georg Solti’s iconoclastic 1972 studio account, often credited with restoring the composer’s own propulsive approach to the mainstream after two decades dominated by Barbirolli and Boult, is almost two minutes longer. 

There is also no doubt that Elgar’s emphasis throughout this performance is well and truly on the disquieting elements of angst that lie just below the symphony’s surface. Thus, from 9:20 onwards in the finale, when one might have expected the great nobilmente tune of the opening movement to return as some sort of triumphant climactic peroration, the composer instead chooses to emphasise the strings that slash disruptively across the melody. It is almost as if Elgar, who, as we know, had been deeply affected by the tragedy and waste of the First World War and the widespread sense of moral collapse that followed in its wake, is pointing out that the surface self-confidence of the Edwardian era’s had, in reality, been fundamentally self-destructive and flawed. It is easily possible to perform – and to interpret - this passage in an entirely different way: see, for example, Paul Serotsky’s fascinating analysis. 

Falstaff, acknowledged from its very first performance as a difficult work “that the public used to the older Elgar will not assimilate very easily” (Ernest Newman), also dates from before the First World War. But Ian Julier’s booklet notes suggest persuasively that it too demonstrates, beneath the surface, a sense of the composer’s increasing alienation and disillusionment. This performance – conveying even more of sense of occasion, no doubt, as it was set down on the opening day of EMI’s new Abbey Road studios – is both gripping and authoritative and, like that of the symphony, should certainly be heard, in the unlikely event that it hasn’t already been, by any admirer of Elgar’s music. 

The London Symphony Orchestra’s association with Elgar and his music went back, of course, a long way, ever since the Enigma Variations had featured prominently in the orchestra’s very first concert on 9 June 1904. There was clearly a high degree of admiration on both sides and the performances recorded on this disc – though very much characteristic of their time in such features as frequent portamento - are excellent examples of the standards that English musicians of the inter-war period could reach when suitably inspired. 

Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration work has been praised so frequently by me and other reviewers that it seems almost unnecessary to add that it is of his usual high standard here. Modern technology, able to retrieve long-lost sounds, has rescued many old 78 rpm recordings from oblivion. These particular interpretations are so central to the Elgar discography that their importance has always been recognised, but it is good to hear them in this new incarnation in the very best possible sound and to see them marketed at a price that makes them available to the widest possible audience.

Rob Maynard

see also Review by Dominy Clements


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