Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
CD 1
Overture, Froissart, Op. 19 (1890) [15:01]
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 (1908) [52:51]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 (1911) [57:23]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 12 April 2007 (Symphony No. 1, Froissart) and 20 May 2007 (Symphony No. 2)

Andrew Davis previously recorded the two Elgar symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1991 and 1992. Originally released on the Teldec label in superb sound, the performances were widely praised. Those readings are currently available on Apex for around a fiver each in English money. Now along comes this two-disc set, recorded live in concert, and released by Signum as part of their association with the Philharmonia Orchestra. (I reviewed some months ago a very fine Elgar/Davis disc in the same series featuring the “Enigma” Variations.) The cost comes to about half as much again as the Apex discs. So the question for admirers of Elgar and Andrew Davis is which are the ones to choose?

The first thing to note is that in terms of overall conception, as a glance at the timings of each movement suggests, the readings, separated by sixteen years, are remarkably consistent. Beware, however, the printed timings of the first disc, which shave nearly fourteen minutes off the total. The A flat major symphony gets off to a fine start with a noble slow introduction, resplendent in sound when the theme is repeated by the full orchestra. The Allegro is powerful and is characterised, as are all these performances, by Davis’s familiar mastery of Elgarian style. The scherzo goes very well and only very few allowances need be made for the pressures of live performance in those fiendishly scurrying string parts. The slow movement is delivered with a most moving restraint, and the finale is brilliantly dispatched, its closing pages – which rarely fail – extremely exciting. So far so good, but I was left with a nagging feeling that this performance was less involving than it should have been. I think Davis might have pushed harder at the main climax of the first movement and there are several points in the performance where he seems unwilling to give the orchestra their head. The woodwind phrasing in the famous passage in the scherzo – “Play it like something you hear down by the river”, said Elgar – seems self-conscious and the conductor’s decision to relax the tempo here leads to a bit of slightly mannered braking when the theme returns a second time. These performers don’t quite convince us that the musical material of much of the finale – lots of sequences – is up to much, and this at a very fast tempo indeed. And then there is the problem of the sound, very analytical and close, making it difficult for the performers to cast the requisite spell in the magical passage with solo violin in the first movement, and particularly in the slow movement, which begins several notches above pianissimo and seems too loud almost throughout. None of these doubts arise from Davis’s earlier recording where, curiously, given its studio provenance, the music making seems hotter and more spontaneous.

Sadly, these feelings are confirmed by the performance of the later work. This has one of the most terrific openings in all music, and let me say that no listener would think otherwise when listening to this performance. But with Davis in 1992, at a near-identical tempo, the playing is even tauter, the brass crescendos more dramatic, the sensational horn arpeggios in the seventh and eighth bars more clearly articulated and impetuous. In short, everything that launches this remarkable symphony on an unsuspecting public is more vivid and exciting. At other points in this first movement, where one hopes for mystery one finds calm, and where excitement should begin to mount – the lead up to the end of the movement, for example – the music can seem placid. A refusal to linger in the sublime slow movement might be seen as a virtue, especially when placed beside some of the more over-affectionate readings available, but there is more drama in the music than is to be found here. These two movements are surely amongst the finest music Elgar ever composed, which cannot really be said for the two remaining ones. There’s a fair amount of padding in the scherzo, but the climax of the movement and the lead into it are astonishing. Elgar himself once addressed an orchestra thus: “… my music represents a man in high fever … Percussion … I want you gradually to drown the rest of the orchestra.” What are we to make of this? Did he mean it literally? In this performance it is the brass and the percussion which drown the rest of the orchestra, and the result relentless and unpleasant. The closing pages of the finale are wonderful, of course, and Elgar’s way with the return of the music from the opening of the work is masterly and most moving, but it seems tacked on, so weak and inconsequential is much of the music which precedes it. Davis manages no better than other conductors in convincing us otherwise, though, for this listener at least, one conductor did. Again, the earlier performance is more successful at all these points.

The first disc is completed by a fine performance of the early concert overture, Froissart.

These performances were recorded in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and though it is many years since I attended a concert there, I can’t help thinking that it must be far from ideal for a full symphony orchestra. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why all concerned seem less engaged with the music than one would expect, especially in concert. In any event I think it must certainly explain the sound. The presentation is fine, and includes a highly readable and informative booklet essay signed M. Ross.

For those seeking recordings of Elgar’s symphonies the choice is very wide. Barbirolli was a very subjective conductor, and his readings, which I adore, will not please everybody. Of similar vintage, several recorded performances by Boult are available, his mastery of large-scale structures unsurpassed. Solti profited from studying the composer’s own recorded performances before setting down his wonderfully exciting readings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Two fascinating and typically idiosyncratic performances from Sinopoli are well worth investigating, and I recently made acquaintance with Charles Mackerras’s performances, a remarkable bargain on Eloquence, and surely amongst the finest of all. Only one conductor has convinced me in the finale of the Second Symphony, however, though I am at a lost to explain how he does it. This is Edward Downes, with the BBC Philharmonic, on Naxos, and the rest of the performance is very fine indeed too. And then there are Andrew Davis’s earlier performances, outstanding, generously coupled, and though I say this with some regret, wanting to encourage the enterprise of this Signum series, preferable in most respects to these new performances.

William Hedley