Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op. 55 [53:57]
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5, Op. 39 [5:29]
Sospiri, Op. 70 [5:34]
Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20 [12:48]
Symphony No 2 in E flat, Op. 63 [59:06]
Overture: Cockaigne (In London Town)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (Sys); City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox (Sospiri, Serenade); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Cockaigne)
rec. 20-21 April 1983, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London (Sy 1, March); 22-23 March, 1984, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Sy 2) ; 16, 22 February 1984, St, Barnabas’s Church, Woodside Park, London (Sospiri, Serenade); 29 September 1970, All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London (Cockaigne). All DDD except Cocakigne (ADD)
EMI 20th CENTURY CLASSICS 907221 2 [77:49 + 73:58]
Bernard Haitink has made a sterling contribution to the musical life of the UK over the last four decades or so, presiding with distinction at various times over the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at Glyndebourne and at the Royal Opera House as well as being an honoured guest on the podia of most of the other major London orchestras. And in addition to contributing to British musical he has absorbed the music itself, conducting and recording works by composers such as Britten, Vaughan Williams - I find much to admire in his recordings of the symphonies - and Walton.
I recall his recording of the Elgar Second Symphony - though it’s now many years since I last heard it - but his recording of the First is new to me. I enjoyed much of it though I have some doubts about the first movement. The motto theme is unfolded at a stately pace - more broadly than I can ever recall - and the succeeding allegro is conceived in quite a spacious way. Haitink achieves considerable clarity through his patient approach and here, and throughout both symphonies one has a strong sense of structure, but I think he misses the fire and drive that the music of this first movement requires. Haitink takes 22:02 for this movement. Just for comparison I investigated a few versions at random from those on my shelves - choosing only studio-made versions - and it’s instructive to see that Barbirolli, in his fairly spacious 1962 account (EMI), comes closest to Haitink at 21:39. Sir Mark Elder (2001, Hallé) requires 20:05 while Sir Adrian Boult (1976, EMI) takes 17:31 and Vernon Handley (1979, Classics for Pleasure) is even swifter, clocking in at 17:03. I’ve never felt any lack of space or presence in either the Boult or Handley readings but, listening to Haitink, I felt that the music didn’t have quite sufficient momentum, though I admired a great deal about the reading
Thereafter his way with the piece is much more to my taste. The Allegro molto scurries along as it should and the account of the finale is impressive. The highlight, however, is a finely sung performance of the Adagio. The nobility of this music suits Haitink very well and his reading has poetry and authority.
Returning to his reading of the Second Symphony after a long gap I was mildly surprised to find that the story was rather the same as in the First in that my reservations centred around the first movement and that the most distinguished part of the interpretation was the slow movement. (The First was recorded about a year before the Second).) The first movement opens promisingly and overall I think Haitink brings off the faster music in this movement well. I’m less sure about the passages of slower, more wistful music, however. I feel that Haitink lingers just too much in these sections and at times one feels the music is coming perilously close to getting becalmed. The elegiac Larghetto is another matter. Haitink’s approach seems just right, blending sorrow and dignity. The scherzo is full of vigour and builds to an exciting climax. The performance of the finale is also a success: Haitink seems in tune with the music’s various moods and here, as elsewhere in both symphonies, his conception of the music is admirably supported through excellent playing by the Philharmonia.
The other miscellaneous Elgar pieces fill the discs generously. Richard Hickox leads affectionate, warm performances of the early Serenade and of Sospiri - what a gorgeous little piece it is! Sir Adrian’s account of Cockaigne is authoritative, though I have heard performances with a bit more sparkle.
For all that they have to commend them I don’t think that Haitink’s performances of the symphonies could be considered as first choice, so anyone investing in recordings of these works would be better advised to consider Handley or Elder. That said, like everything that this fine conductor does, these are thoughtful, well-considered and deeply musical accounts of these great scores and I’m glad to have them in my collection. The EMI recordings are good; the notes, in three languages, are brief but adequate.
John Quinn  

Thoughtful, well-considered and deeply musical accounts of Elgar’s symphonies, even if they are not first choices.