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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 55 (1901) [48:53]
Cockaigne, Op. 40 (1901) [14:26]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2009. DDD
ONYX 4145 [63:19]

I am not privy to the reason why Onyx has only just released this recording, made as long ago as 2009 but it certainly cannot be for reasons of doubting its artistic worth. Collectors will have their own favourite versions of Op. 55, dubbed by Richter, the conductor of its premiere in 1901, as “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not only in this country”. Even after hearing this excellent performance, I retain a preference overall for the recording made in 2001 by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé (review ~~ review), but this version by Petrenko demands the greatest respect - not least because he furthers the tradition begun by Svetlanov of Russian conductors demonstrating an affinity with Elgar’s music.

This is a taut, sensitive account, which carefully grades dynamics and makes sense of Elgar’s many changes of tempo. On account of its patrician restraint, it misses some of the warmth and affection Elder brings to the phrasing of the stately opening theme; Elder leans more emphatically into the first beat, is more overtly enamoured of rubato and more inclined to underline the passion that lies beneath the veneer of Elgar’s noble Stoicism. One thing that Petrenko does even better than Sir Mark, however, is the hushed, poised conclusion to the Adagio; the cupped, mellow sound of the solo clarinet is of unearthly beauty. The finale is grand, released and ultimately triumphant, making the most of the sonorities of an orchestra which has gone from strength to strength. Indeed the playing of the RLPO is extraordinarily fine throughout, as is the sound given to them.

The Cockaigne exhibits the same virtues. This is an alert, rumbustious performance, full of high spirits and good will. The timpani is thunderous at climaxes and the passage depicting the lovers is as tender as one could wish. Petrenko seems wholly at home in the Elgarian idiom. One hopes that whatever the next step is in his career that he continues to champion this music internationally.

Ralph Moore