Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, op. 63 (1909-11) [51:36]
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), op. 36 (1898-9) [28:02]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Free Trade Hall, Manchester, mono 8-9 June 1954 (symphony), stereo 21-23 June 1956.

Are John Barbirolli’s earlier recordings of Elgar leaner and more stimulating?
I’ll take the Enigma Variations first as there’s less difficulty regarding comparison. This 1956 recording is a fine stereo one made by the American Mercury team and can hold its own pretty well against EMI’s 1962 version. JB made the latter with the Philharmonia Orchestra and it’s only available currently in a 5CD set (EMI 3 67918 2) which also includes JB’s Symphony No. 2 stereo recording with the Hallé (review). The Variations theme in 1956 (tr. 5) is expressively shaped without being overcooked. The the important cello part towards the end and close in the major is clear. CAE (tr. 6) is suitably brighter for Elgar’s wife, with a sudden burst of passion at 0:51 before the closing sweet ascent. The two sides of RPA (tr. 10) - a saturnine cast in the strings and a gracious tripping in the woodwind - are well contrasted.
I doubt if Ysobel (tr. 11) has ever been more carefree in her viola solo which is matched by lovely rising glissandi in the clarinet and happy high violins. I’ve never heard Troyte (tr. 12) better played, with an exciting timpani solo and sprays of cymbal. The Mercury recording team always could make cymbals spectacular, but in the finale, which will really clean your ears out, they also sensitively distinguish between soft and very loud cymbal appearances. I find WN (tr. 13) a little fast, though marked Allegretto but I like the fairly fast Adagio JB adopts for Nimrod (tr. 14) which makes it more heroic, less maudlin. The importance of the viola and cello parts in the second statement is clear and the climax well balanced. What I do find rather stiffly declamatory is the cellos’ theme in BGN (tr. 17). On the other hand I like the contrast between the optimistic expectation of the strings and the very quiet prayer of the clarinet solos of the Romanza (tr. 18).
So do I prefer JB’s 1956 to his 1962 Enigma? Yes, for while 1962’s more expansive treatment, taking 2:30 longer overall, has more detail, more pointed nuance from the opening theme, it’s achieved by stunting a natural flow that the 1956 recording has in abundance. The calmer 1962 WN is preferable. That said, I concede that the 1962 Nimrod is more grand, sonorous and impassioned, with more of Elgar’s dynamic contrasts discernible. There again the 1962 BGN is stiffer still, truly lugubrious.
Coming to Symphony 2 comparison is trickier as the presently reissued 1954 EMI recording is a mono one and therefore inevitably inferior in spread and sheer fullness of sound to the 1964 stereo remake. This Pristine Audio transfer is clear and bright but the string tone is a touch glassy, the climaxes a little shrill. What is impressive, however, in this 1954 interpretation is the sheer sweep, energy and momentum of the opening. You need go no further than the three varieties of rhythm accorded to the opening chord which in 1964 seems laboured in its care: clarity at the cost of spontaneity. In 1964 the whole symphony takes 55:52 in comparison with 51:36 here. You might even think the relative lack of sonority of the detail of the pockets of virtuoso demand made of individual instruments means such trees don’t get in the way of the wood. In 1954 the flowing treatment of the second theme (tr. 1 1:55) makes it more wistful in wishing to downplay its emotion. How well Barbirolli captures the fragility, the quintessential Elgar of the third theme (2:42), dolce e delicato on the cellos. More magical still is what Elgar called the passage of the presence of a ‘malign influence’ from 5:52 and the cellos’ presentation of its theme, alluring and enticing at 6:46. The chamber quality and the whole atmosphere of free yet uneasy fluctuation of dynamic and themes is wonderfully realized.
The slow movement (tr. 2) is a funeral march that in Barbirolli’s hands is mournful, dignified, yet full of warmth and a sense of affectionate memory. There’s despair too as the violins enter and rise out of the texture, only to fall away again. The second theme woodwind dirge (2:26) wanders around lost but keeps returning to haunt us. The third theme (3:08) is a hushed, eloquent and finally passionate outpouring by the strings. These then rush headlong into the fourth theme (5:08), a noble celebration by brass, a brief banner of fervent blaze. The opening march returns and the oboe roams airily above it like the soul of the departed floating over the proceedings. The strings’ climax following the return of the third and fourth themes is electrifying. Though we’re then taken down to a bleak earth there’s a final icy shudder. There’s also here a sense of thanksgiving and moving on which the more sedate 1964 account, for all its expressively dripping emotion, lacks.
How tense should the third movement rondo (tr. 3) be? In 1954 JB thinks a good deal. The violins sweep up at the end of the first section presentation of the rondo theme and there’s a waspishness that subverts the initial nonchalance. I prefer the less fractious approach JB takes in his 1964 recording, nicely detailed and more playful. In the mean time in 1954 the second theme (0:46) has been ruggedly displayed. Everything is thrust forward urgently and yet you’re also conscious of the virtuoso orchestral writing. Then add two surprises: the smooth pastoral interlude (2:40), with more calm contrast than in 1964, and the return of the ‘malign influence’ (4:31) from the first movement combined with this one’s opening theme. The 1964 recording does gain here from greater weight and excitement of climax.
Effectively the finale (tr. 4) is a roll-call of three melodies and then the appearance of a fourth. The question is how should they be delivered. JB’s projection in 1954, though fluent and spirited, doesn’t do them the justice that the greater measure and sonority of the 1964 recording provides. The latter brings with it more warmth as well as rhythmic clarity and a parade of justifiable pride in its own sense of significance. This is aided by some glorious brass playing. That said, in this 1954 recording you can still enjoy the benign, untroubled opening theme on cellos and double basses, the sturdily resilient, actively noble quality of the rich second theme (1:20) and then the heart-warming grandeur of the third theme (2:35). The appearance of the fourth (10:57) is the symphony’s ‘Spirit of Delight’ motto theme, no longer with its opening movement blaze but lingered over amid glowing affection.
So do I prefer JB’s 1954 to his 1964 Symphony 2? Yes, but without the 1964 account you lose out on the full realization of Elgar’s brass sonority, the humour of the third movement and the breadth of the gathering together of the finale. Yet without the 1954 account you’d miss the vivid contrast of animated propulsion and fragile delicacy in the first movement and the sense of gratitude as well as mourning in the slow movement. So these earlier JB recordings are leaner and more stimulating.
Michael Greenhalgh 

These earlier JB recordings are leaner and more stimulating. 

Masterwork Index: Symphony 2 ~~ Enigma Variations