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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op. 20* [12:04]
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 [48:43]
Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47 **[14:16]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63 [51:35]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti; *Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner; **English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten.
rec. *April, 1968; February, 1972 (Symphony No 1); February, 1975 (Symphony No 2); **December 1968, The Maltings, Snape. ADD
DECCA THE BRITISH MUSIC COLLECTION 473 082-2 [61:09 + 65:31]

Rob Barnett reviewed this set as long ago as 2002 and, much more recently he reviewed an ICA release of a DVD of Solti conducting the Second Symphony in the same month that he recorded the work for Decca. So you may wonder why I’m reviewing this Decca set again, especially since it has been deleted from the catalogue. The reason is that it is one of a growing number of recordings that have been given a new lease of life thanks to a licensing agreement between Universal Music Group and the enterprising independent dealers, Presto Classical of Leamington Spa. Presto now offer a Manufacture on Demand service and I’ll give details of how you can obtain this and other recordings at the end of this review. Presto supplies copies that are identical to the original releases, including booklets and artwork. So far their licence arrangement extends to Universal but it wouldn’t surprise me if the service expands to other labels in the future.
 
I bought the Solti recording of the First Symphony when it came out on LP but it’s a very long time indeed since I heard it. I don’t believe I’ve previously encountered his subsequent account of the Second. I well remember the stir that Solti’s reading of the First Symphony occasioned when it first came out, principally on account of the volatility and the often swift speeds he adopted. Solti made it known that as part of his preparation of the score he’d studied Elgar’s own recording closely and he repeated that process when he came to learn the Second Symphony. I thought it would be interesting, therefore, to compare Solti with Elgar’s 1930 recording of the First Symphony (review) and his 1927 traversal of the Second (review). I’ve owned both those recordings in EMI’s invaluable three-volume set, The Elgar Edition for many years – I’ve not heard the Naxos transfers that have been reviewed on MusicWeb International.
 
In their respective very thorough reviews of the Naxos issues of the First and Second symphonies Dominy Clements and Christopher Howell make a number of interesting points, some of which are germane to consideration of these Solti performances. One alludes to the possibility that Elgar was obliged to tailor his speeds to take account of restricted side lengths - a debate which I recall raged when Solti’s first Elgar recording came out - while the other speculates whether Elgar’s stick technique was sufficiently good to enable him to negotiate smoothly the many tempo modifications that he composed into his scores. We'll never know for sure: only someone who had heard him perform the works in concert would be able to offer an opinion as to whether his gramophone recordings gave an accurate representation of his interpretations. I’d just offer two thoughts. Firstly, Elgar’s stick technique may have been limited but he was a pretty experienced conductor, especially of his own music, by the time he made these recordings. To judge by his recordings, all of which I think I’ve heard, I rather think he was pretty good at getting what he wanted from an orchestra. Secondly, though the short side-lengths issue is one that can’t be overlooked, Elgar was a great enthusiast for the recording process and had been recording his own music since 1914. There must have been constraints of process but I doubt very much that Elgar would have allowed HMV to issue recordings under his name with which he was not artistically satisfied. So, in studying Elgar’s own recordings I think Solti was getting as close as he could to Elgar’s intentions, at least at the time that he made those particular recordings in 1927 and 1930. It has to be said, though, that the best guides of all to Elgar’s intentions and wishes remain the scores themselves, into which he wrote copious and very clear directions to the performers.
 
Solti’s way with the First Symphony is certainly exciting – some might say excitable. Listening to it again after so many years there were passages in the first movement that really made me sit up because the pace was uncommonly fast. Yet, when I turned to Elgar’s own recording and in particular to the passages where I’d raised a question mark over Solti’s pacing – such as the passage from 5:22 or again the stretch between 7:55 and 9:20 – I found that Elgar’s approach was not dissimilar. In other words, although more ‘centrist’ interpreters such as Boult, Elder or Handley may offer an approach which is more familiar to us, Solti has a precedent on his side. Overall, I felt that his reading of the first movement can be rather breathless in places but it’s vivid, urgent and exciting.
 
The flashing brilliance of the second movement is very well conveyed by Solti and he relaxes nicely for the trio. His account of the great Adagio is more expansive than the composer’s. Indeed, Solti is closer to the three conductors mentioned above in terms of pacing though he doesn’t have the patrician objectivity that Boult, for one, brings to the music. This is a richly expressive performance and I must say I found it very persuasive. Elgar’s own performance finds the composer moving the music forward more than Solti – or anyone else – but there’s still ample expressiveness in his reading. Solti’s performance of the finale is white-hot at times. There were occasions – such as the passage between 4:50 and 5:58 - where I found the pace uncomfortably fast but, once again, a comparison with Elgar’s recording revealed that his treatment of these pages was similar. When the motto theme makes its final reappearance at 9:37 it trails unambiguous clouds of glory in Solti’s hands.
 
Solti’s recording of this symphony is disconcerting at times but I found it fresh and stimulating. I should also say that though I’ve found Elgar’s own recording offers precedents for the way Solti plays certain passages the Solti recording is by no means a pastiche of the composer’s version. Clearly Solti had his own view of this great score. That’s equally true of the Second Symphony.
 
I’m less persuaded by some of what he does in the Second Symphony. Once again, the reading is often volatile but here I think that Solti is sometimes too headstrong. My goodness, he’s quick at the start of the first movement; the music bounds along like a greyhound. The pace is electrifying but I worry that at this speed the music doesn’t get the chance properly to make its mark. The LPO plays valiantly but here and elsewhere I get the impression that they’re scrabbling to keep up with the pace and intensity of Solti’s conception. Even in the more reposeful passages I don’t really sense that Solti relaxes, even if he does moderate the tempo. In some stretches, such as 8:55 – 9:28, the fast music is pushed forward excessively. All that said, the composer is just as unsettling and just as inclined to push the music forward urgently, if not hastily. With both conductors I have the distinct impression that in the fast episodes the phrases aren’t allowed sufficient time to breathe. One important point of differentiation is that Elgar is less prone than Solti to linger in the slower passages.
 
Solti is more expansive than Elgar in the wonderful slow movement. In his hands the music is a noble elegy and I found much to admire here, though on occasion I felt Solti was just a bit too expressive. Predictably, Solti is in his element in the scherzo: it’s a virtuoso movement and it’s given a virtuoso performance. In the closing pages (from 7:18) the orchestral pyrotechnics are thrown off by the LPO with splendid bravura. The finale offers further examples of Solti’s tendency to be headstrong but, once again, I found that Elgar was similarly inclined to urgency in the identical passages. By contrast, however, when the magnificent, wistfully autumnal closing pages are reached I feel that Solti is rather too slow whereas Elgar gets this coda just right.
 
Overall, I’m less impressed with Solti’s reading of the Second than I was with his performance of the First. Perhaps another way of putting that is that in the First Symphony Solti ‘gets away with’ the passages in the outer movements where he presses on the accelerator more than most conductors do. In the Second Symphony, however, he goes too far and several of the fast passages in the outer movements sound unduly pressed, even gabbled. The LPO plays superbly for him in the First Symphony. In the Second much of what they do is excellent but they seem audibly challenged by the tempi at times. The recordings are typical of Decca’s excellent work in the Kingsway Hall in the 1970s. This is just you might expect given that the producer was Ray Minshull and the engineers were Kenneth Wilkinson and John Dunkerley.
 
Britten’s splendid, sweeping account of the Introduction and Allegro and Marriner’s expert performance of the touching little Serenade made very desirable fillers.
 
I don’t think either of these Solti performances could be regarded as a ‘library choice’; Elder, Handley and, depending on my mood, Barbirolli or Boult are much more reliable guides to these masterpieces. Yet Solti, for all his impetuousness and volatility, offers an intriguing and often stimulating take on these scores and his recordings are well worth hearing.
 
This set can be obtained direct from Presto Classical, either in CD or download format. Details of this release and the others offered through this service can be obtained by clicking here. I shall be reviewing some more of these releases shortly.
 
John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett

Masterwork Index: Symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 2