Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major Op.63 (1911) [56:01]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Philharmonie Berlin, Germany, 28 October 2013
DECCA 4786677 [56:01]

With the exception of Sir Adrian Boult few conductors have been given the opportunity or indeed shown the inclination to record Elgar's Symphony No.2 more than once. All the more reason therefore to welcome, even if it's with a faint shudder of disbelief that it can be really forty years after the first traversal, this performance from Daniel Barenboim.

Back in the 1970s Barenboim made a series of Elgar discs for CBS/Sony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time he was on the short list for principal conductor of that orchestra and was the preferred choice of several influential players in the orchestra although he ultimately lost out to Georg Solti. Aside from a justly famous version of the Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zuckerman and a live performance of the Cello Concerto with his then wife Jacqueline du Pré contemporary critics did not judge those recordings as seriously challenging top recommendations of the day. Returning to them from today's perspective they reveal a consistent and individual approach to Elgar that sits between the volatility of say a Solti and the mature vision of the later Boult recordings (Lyrita; EMI). Part of the fascination with this new Decca recording is how little Barenboim's overall interpretation has changed. For sure an occasional passage might be fast here or slower there but the conception is very similar. Some comparative timings are interesting:
  Sinopoli/DG Barenboim/CBS Barenboim/Decca Boult/EMI Solti/Decca
1. Allegro vivace 20:41 18:50 18:28 17:34 15:32
2. Larghetto 18:24 14:19 14:01 14:13 15:33
3. Rondo - Presto 8:59 8:01 8:01 8:03 7:52
4. Moderato 17:19 15:19 15:31 13:19 12:32
TOTAL 65:23 56:29 56:01 53:09 51:29

The fact that such a wide range of timings exists and that all of the performances - as well as many others - are compelling and satisfying is testimony to the quality and variety of the work. Michael Kennedy in his book Portrait of Elgar makes a fascinating argument for the idea that this work together with the Violin Concerto and The Music Makers are the three key Elgar works. Of those three the Symphony is the richest and most complex of all. Indeed, it was that technical complexity and musical/emotional ambiguity that left early audiences confused and ultimately disappointed. Compared to the undoubted genius of the First Symphony this work fluctuates between doubt and certainty, hope and despair, rage and regret. The difficulty for interpreters - aside from the huge technical demands made on the players - is to find a coherent path through this minefield of Elgar's turbulent world. In the range of interpretations listed above Sinopoli and Solti focus on one extreme and minimise the emotion at the opposite end of the expressive spectrum. Boult in this his last recording brings a certain held gravitas that does not ignore either extreme but rather views them from a perspective of detached old age. Barenboim chooses to engage with each and every emotion as they present - rather like enjoying a gallery of Art with a wide range of styles viewed in a relatively brief period.

There are many positives to be taken from this approach. Clearly Barenboim has a great deal of affection for the score and he has conveyed this love to the Berlin players for whom this symphony must be a rarity at best. Indeed the quality and engagement of the playing is one of its major pluses. Given the influence of Germanic composers on Elgar it should come as little surprise that the rich Germanic sound produced by the excellent Staatskapelle Berlin is very well suited indeed to this work. I do think there is a consciously theatrical approach in Elgar's scoring that pre-supposes antiphonal violins - the photograph of the orchestra in the liner would suggest just such an arrangement but curiously the recording points up this detail less than one might expect or indeed hope. The Decca recording is full and rich - without the classic Decca sound produced for Solti but still impressive. Occasional orchestral details are missed - the harp part proves to be only occasionally audible. There are points where this seems to be a conscious choice by Barenboim. For instance the coruscating chromatic upward trumpet scale in the first movement (rehearsal figures 40 - 41) is just part of the texture in both his performances which rather negates Elgar's careful fff marking - one full step louder than the rest of the orchestration. Listen to either Mackerras or Menuhin both with the RPO on Argo and Virgin Classics respectively for the way to make this passage register with thrilling intensity.

Indeed this example flags up my underlying concern with this recording and interpretation. It strikes me that Barenboim finds so much beauty in the score that he shies away from the harsher passages. Likewise, he can at times suffocate a passage by over-exaggerating a slower tempo. A good instance is the opening of the work. Barenboim hits his stride with an ideally bracing tempo full of swaggering confidence and sweeping energy. The Berlin horns in particular make the most of Elgar's Straussian writing. I also like the way Barenboim encourages the superb strings to apply those little portamenti slides rarely marked in the Elgar's scores but so stylistically right - there's a lovely one at figure 10. My minor quibble there is that it seems rather arbitrary when these are applied. The sense of being stifled by love appears by figure 11 (2:45 track 1). The three bars preceding are marked poco (my italics) sostenuto. Barenboim treats it as a major rallentando. Yes the cellos do play dolce e delicato at 11 and the dynamics here are scrupulously observed but what has happened to the a tempo crochet=92; the music's pulse has all but died. Far too often here and in similar passages in the other movements Barenboim lapses into a Falstaffian Dream-Interlude reverie. This has two major impacts on the music; firstly it seriously undermines the sense of the symphonic form and secondly when Barenboim does 'wake up' the return to the earlier faster tempi feels rushed and unconvincing. The closing bars of this movement are exciting although simply fast with no true accelerando al fin. This comes after another passage of near stasis (figure 63 - around 17:00) where Barenboim does not trust Elgar's written out slower tempo; the melody is played by notes twice their previous length. He slows the pulse yet further and we are fatally becalmed and has to add a major but unmarked acceleration at 64.

One might think that the famous slow movement - Elgar's elegiac tribute to the dead King George VII, his friend Rodewald and indeed a sense of the end of Empire would work best in Barenboim's luxurious treatment. Again, the quality of the playing means many passages of exceptional beauty. Compare the masterly Boult here - I particularly like his Nixa recording from the 1950s - to hear how greater emotional depths are quarried by holding back from excessive or overt emotional displays. Elgar's scoring is quite superb here and the best compliment any conductor can do is trust it. Likewise, the emotional ebb and flow is there and does not need excessive reinforcing to work. The movement has two great climatic build-ups. The first at 76 is followed by one of Elgar's great melodies marked sostenuto [sustained] - the next time, near the movement's close at 85 a version of the same melody now is marked accel pushing on to the movement's poignant close. Barenboim pushes on both times which is a shame. However, his close to this movement is brilliantly achieved.

After that it is a disappointment that the feverish fury of the Rondo is underplayed. For sure it is a tour de force of orchestral virtuosity but it lacks the vehemence this music surely needs. Michael Kennedy has written that Elgar stated it represented "the madness that attends the excess or abuse of passion", and tied it to a section of a Tennyson poem related to a corpse's experience in his grave: "... the hoofs of the horses beat, beat into my scalp and brain ...". I cannot think of another passage in British music up until this time that encapsulates such nightmarish images. I can imagine some will find this tempered version more agreeable than other unleashed performances - this is the movement for me where Solti's approach pays greatest dividends aided by Decca's supreme analogue engineering although Mackerras is again hugely impressive.

Elgar's First symphony explicitly uses a cyclic motif to tie the whole work together. Here, there is a subtler sense of a narrative that draws itself together in the closing movement. Elements of all that has preceded, emotionally more than musically, are revisited before the music draws to a close of dignified acceptance. Barenboim's strengths and weaknesses are the same as they have been throughout; passages of great brilliance or beauty but lacking a strong sense of a thread drawing one inexorably forward. It might be inauthentic in the sense that Elgar did not write it but I do like the 'optional' organ part that is added - following a comment from Boult - in the closing peroration. Handley's excellent CFP recording debuted the idea and more recently he has been copied by Slatkin on RCA and Mackerras - the latter with greatest sonic effect. Whatever its authenticity it does crown the movement and allows the music's withdrawal to its closing rapt contemplation to register. Much as Barenboim was successful at the close of the second movement, the concentration and focus he creates in these final few bars are most impressive - in part because this is one final sunset from which he does not have to rouse.

Unsurprisingly, given it is produced by Andrew Keener, this is a fine sounding recording - if anything could persuade the German players that Elgar is not simply second-rate Brahms, this should be it. Ultimately this is a strongly personal and sincerely expressive performance of a major work. The lack of a coupling may deter some but it should not. If this does not go to the top of my list of preferred versions it is because those are such fine performances and ones that from my perspective more truly touch the essence that is the complex world of Elgar's music. It is that elusiveness and ultimate loss that Elgar was referring to in the famous "rarely, rarely, comest thou, spirit of delight" quotation that heads the score and in that sense Barenboim is only partially successful.

Nick Barnard
Masterwork Index: Elgar symphony 2


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