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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
CD 1
In the South (Alassio) - Overture Op. 50 (1904) [19:25]
Symphony No.1 in A flat Op. 55 (1908) [53:43]
CD 2
Serenade, Op. 20 (1892) [13:31]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op. 63 (1910) [55:52]
Philharmonia (1); Hallé (2)/Sir John Barbirolli (symphonies)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Silvestri (Alassio) Norman Del Mar (Serenade)
rec. Winter Gardens, Bournemouth, 5-7 September 1967 (Alassio); Kingsway Hall, London, 28-29 August 1962; 20-21 April 1964 (1; 2); Christchurch Priory, 20 June 1967 (Serenade). Stereo. ADD
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 9689242 [73:16 + 69:31] 
Experience Classicsonline

This two-for-one EMI set gives us classic 1960s Elgar in analogue. It contrasts with the just-released companion set which proffers 1970s analogue Holst (see review). 

The two discs are built around purely orchestral Elgar. The common threads are Barbirolli in the symphonies … and the Bournemouth orchestra in the shorter pieces. Barbirolli directs the Philharmonia in the First and the Hallé in the Second. The latter recording was, when first issued, spread somewhat profligately across three LP sides with a fourth left blank. You can still find this set in secondhand shops. I recall seeing it in Times Gone By not far from Chorley.

The Bournemouth orchestra provide what may be seen as the fillers though in the case of Silvestri's Alassio it is anything but a filler. This is for me one of the finest of all recordings and interpretations in any genre. It is stunningly vivid and still sounds gloriously passionate - completely uninhibited, indeed rapturous. How did Silvestri conjure such playing? It's a recording that belongs in our Hall of Fame. It was last available in a CD that showcased the BSO and its conductors down the ages - from Dan Godfrey onwards. The closest you come to this passion among modern recordings of the work is in the underrated Sinopoli with the Philharmonia on DG. Hearing this again makes me lament that Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969) did not go on to record Francesca da Rimini. If he had then we might be referring to that recording as the reference point rather than Stokowski on Everest-Omega or Ovchinnikov on Melodiya. This is one of those recordings where passion flows though each bar and only at the close does the listener sink back into the chair utterly spent after the shudder and tensely controlled onrush of the last few moments.

When reviewing the Barbirolli-Elgar EMI box I wrote with some disparagement of the First Symphony. It has a weightiness and a somnolence that for me only partly hits the spot. For all its luxurious and lucid recording perspectives, it suffers from an accidie of the symphonic musculature. It will please you in the correct mood and the nobilmente element is present but I wanted more surge and tramping urgency. Wonderful gruff brass and harp recording, by the way - in fact if the recording were the only thing this would be at top of the list. The lacy feathery vitality of the Allegro molto is lovingly done without that hint of torpor which otherwise irradiates this performance. Everything is played con amore to the hilt yet I hankered for the rage of a Toscanini or a Cantelli or a Golovanov.

Del Mar - a great Strauss student and practical interpreter - was a doughty Elgarian. His Polydor-DG recording of Enigma and the P&Cs goes to prove this - snap it up if ever you see it. Here in one of Elgar's least virile pieces - the Serenade - a sort of counterpart to Sibelius in Rakastava - he directs a sturdily nostalgic and delightful recording with plenty of carefully and successfully calculated emphases.

We end with an old friend: the Second Symphony in Barbirolli's affectionate and Homeric reading. With Barbirolli one feels the contrast between the two works. For me comparison between the two symphonies parallels that between the two Brahms piano concertos. The first not striving to ingratiate yet craggily tragic; the Second fully mature, a Pandora's box in range of mood. It is fully wrought, epic and completely satisfying. Barbirolli while differing from my preferred version (LPO/Solti, Decca - all headstrong potency) is deeply and toweringly impressive. Barbirolli relishes every moment - and there is pleasure in that too. The recording proclaims its exalted calling in capturing the violins’ ‘fugitive gleam’ for example in the second movement at 2:20 and also in the grandiloquent bloom of the horns. The strolling legato of the finale is lovingly paced and well judged. The stereo separation and other spatial qualities excitingly enhance the bold and noble brass-string dialogues from 4:10 onwards in the finale. The climax with that swaying asymmetrical syncopation at 8:50-8:53 still has galvanic power. Among the many alternatives do try to hear this revelatory version but do not miss out on Solti (Decca), Handley (EMI), Downes (Naxos) and, yes, Svetlanov (RSK). After being so impressed with Sinopoli's In the South (DG) I also have high hopes of his Elgar 2 when I can get to hear it.

The capable notes are by Michael Kennedy and are culled from previous issues of these pieces. In the case of the symphonies these recordings have been reissued time and again to the delight of successive generations discovering vintage Elgar.

In a nice nostalgic touch EMI include full colour reproductions of the original LP covers for the two symphonies.

Not just for nostalgic fifty-pluses. A classic thrilling In the South and two gravely concentrated readings of the symphonies.

Rob Barnett



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