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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 1 in A flat major, Op. 55
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. session and live, 31 October and 3 November 2008, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. DDD
EXTON EXCL-00027 [52:20] 

CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No 2 in E flat major, Op. 63
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. session and live, 7-8 November 2008, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, DDD
EXTON EXCL-00028 [55:06] 

CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme Enigma, Op. 36 [30:29]
Overture In the South (Alassio), Op. 50 [21:11]
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. session and live, 12-14 November 2008, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. DDD
EXTON EXCL-00029 [51:38] 

CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Op. 39: No 1 in D major [6:09]; No 2 in A minor [5:49]; No 3 in C minor [6:10]; No 4 in G minor [5:13]; No 5 in C major [5:58]; No 6 in G minor (completed by Anthony Payne) [7:46]
Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20 [12:20]
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. session and live, 7-8, 12-14 November 2008, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. DDD
EXTON EXCL-00030 [49:25] 
Experience Classicsonline

Not long ago I reviewed a set of recordings by these same artists of orchestral music by Rachmaninov. Those recordings were made during a festival devoted to Rachmaninov’s music in which Vladimir Ashkenazy led the Sydney Symphony in 2007. In the following year they mounted a similar celebration of the works of Elgar and the present recordings were set down then. As with the Rachmaninov set, the recordings are described as “session and live” so it’s not to clear just how much editing has gone on. One other characteristic that the two series of recordings share, I’m afraid, is that Exton have issued CDs that offer somewhat short playing time. On the other hand, unlike the Rachmaninov recordings, these Elgar discs are available separately, allowing collectors to pick and choose.
Recently I saw a most interesting television film entitled Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask, which I heartily recommend to those who have not yet seen it. Vladimir Ashkenazy contributed some short interview clips to the programme, in which his genuine enthusiasm for Elgar’s music was very evident. He gives further evidence of his love for Elgar in these performances.
There’s much to admire, for example, in his account of the First Symphony. I liked the drive and energy he brings to the second movement while in III he evinces proper feeling for this noble adagio, yet sensibly he keeps the music on the move; he’s evidently in sympathy with this noble and eloquent music. He also does the finale well but I fear his traversal of the big opening movement strikes me as less successful. The motto theme is taken quite steadily right at the start and when it’s repeated on full orchestra you realise that the pacing is just that bit too stately, especially since Ashkenazy has the bass line played very firmly. The effect is close to being portentous. The main allegro is generally satisfactory though I feel a slightly more fleet tempo would have been advantageous. The trouble here is that Ashkenazy doesn’t impart quite enough spring to Elgar’s dotted rhythms, yet it’s from those very rhythms that so much of the forward impetus derives. One passage where I felt there was a distinct lack of surge lies between 10:04 and 10:41 in this performance. While overall timings don’t always tell the whole story they are instructive here. Ashkenazy takes 21:17 for this movement whereas, when I checked three favourite versions in my collection, I found that Vernon Handley (EMI, 1979) takes 20:27. Mark Elder, in his recent very fine Hallé version (review) takes 20:05 while Sir Adrian Boult (EMI, 1976) almost whips through the movement in 18:39 (review). I fear that the slightly foursquare reading of the first movement is something of a drawback to this Ashkenazy recording.
The Second Symphony starts well, with Ashkenazy impelling the opening pages forward nicely. In fact, the whole movement comes off well - the somewhat sinister-sounding episode, which we will encounter again in III, is well handled (from 7:19) and Ashkenazy also prepares for that section well. The interpretation of II is convincing: Ashkenazy conveys the elegiac flavour of the music without overplaying his hand. The Rondo is as urgent and dynamic as it should be. I have some doubts, however, about the finale. In the first few minutes I just sensed a slight want of lift in the rhythms; the music sounds a fraction heavy. However, the lead-up to the trumpet-capped climax is well managed and thereafter I found Ashkenazy’s way with the music satisfying, not least in the wistful coda, which he shapes sympathetically. 
The third disc brings the Enigma Variations and Elgar’s great Straussian showpiece, In the South. The performance of Enigma is a decent one but for me it never really quite matches the achievement of an interpreter such as Barbirolli. He and Boult, though offering very different perspectives on this great masterpiece, knew through a mixture of instinct and long experience, how to mould and shape an Elgar phrase persuasively but without artifice. Ashkenazy, for all the merits of his performance, isn’t really in that league. Thus the theme itself and Variation I sound a bit cool and objective. In III the little interjections by flute and oboe are just a bit too staccato and, as a result, the music sounds snatched. On the other hand, Nimrod is noble and straightforward and all credit to Ashkenazy for that and for not falling into the trap of playing it as an elegy. However, Variation X is something of a disappointment; there’s insufficient fire and drive in the music, especially in the strings’ downward rushes, which sound anaemic. The finale is quite good but, to be honest, lacks the essential electricity and grandeur. Overall, this is an efficient but not inspiring Enigma.
In the South fares better. This is a good, colourful rendition even if it doesn’t sweep the listener - or this listener, anyway - off his feet in the way that the best performances do. In my view those are the ones by Barbirolli (BBC Legends), Elder (review) and the incomparable Silvestri (review). Ashkenazy responds well to Elgar’s various changes of mood, ensuring that the work is not episodic. The canto popolare passage is atmospherically done, including a nice dusky viola solo, and the conductor prepares for this section imaginatively. One drawback is that there are times, both in this work, and in Enigma, where the violins sound slightly undernourished, especially in alt. The final pages, Elgar’s gloriously ripe coda, are taken just a fraction too steadily for my taste: the music doesn’t really take off, as it should.
The final disc collects together all five of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches and also Anthony Payne’s completion of a Sixth march. That’s been recorded before, at least once - by the indefatigable Richard Hickox (review) - but to the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the expanded set of six has appeared together on CD. I’ve heard the Payne completion before and I have to say that this recording confirms my agreement with Ian Lace’s judgement, in his review of the Hickox recording, that, unlike Payne’s stunningly effective realisation of the sketches for the Third Symphony, this march adds little to our knowledge and appreciation of Elgar. As Ian put it, ‘perhaps the sketches were better left in the archives?’ Quite. Ashkenazy and his players play the piece with gusto and make as good a case for it as could be wished.
With the other five marches we are on more familiar territory. Or are we? In fact, it tends to be the First and Fourth of the set that are most commonly played and recorded. But the other three marches are well worth hearing. Number 2 is much less ‘obvious’ than Number 1. The music is more shadowy and carries ‘uneasy undertones’, in the words of the booklet annotator. Number 3 is often surprisingly subdued for a march and swagger is only occasionally experienced. I think Ashkenazy does all these marches well. I’m delighted to say that he plays the Big Tune in Number 1 unaffectedly - how nice to hear this fine melody in the way Elgar intended it, shorn of any jingoistic connotations! The disc also contains a well played and affectionately shaped account of the Serenade for Strings, in which the lovely, hushed central movement affords particular pleasure.
So, what is one to make of these discs? The first thing to say is that one can’t help but notice that the discs offer rather stingy measure in terms of playing time. The documentation is in English and Japanese and, to be honest, the English notes, by various authors, are serviceable at best. The recorded sound is perfectly satisfactory, without being anything special - I listened in conventional CD format. The key purchasing decision will revolve around performance standards and the quality of these interpretations. The Sydney Symphony play well enough but they don’t outshine orchestras such as the London Philharmonic and certainly not the current leaders of the pack in this repertoire, Sir Mark Elder’s Hallé. Ashkenazy himself is a reliable guide to the music but, to be candid, I don’t think he has the music in his blood in the way that conductors such as Barbirolli, Boult, Elder or Handley do. I doubt that anyone buying any of these discs will be seriously disappointed but there are several preferable versions of every one of these works in the catalogue and Ashkenazy doesn’t disturb existing recommendations. 

John Quinn






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