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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 55 (1901) [48:53]
Cockaigne In London Town, Op. 40 (1901) [14:26]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 21-22 July (Symphony), 24 September (Cockaigne) 2009, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
ONYX 4145 [63:19]

In 2011 the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder performed the Elgar Symphony No. 1. My report of that concert concluded with the words “there are no better Elgarians around when Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Orchestra take wing in music that just runs through their veins.” More recently in 2013 I reviewed another Bridgewater Hall performance of the Symphony No. 1 - this time with the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. If that I wrote “Quite simply the performance of the Elgar was a triumph.” Unquestionably the deep tradition of excellence with Elgar in the North-West of England continues to flourish and this Onyx recording of Petrenko's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic demonstrates the continuation of high standards.

In the right hands Elgar’s concert overture CockaigneIn London Town’ makes a welcome and exhilarating curtain-raiser. It's a vividly stirring fifteen minute sequence of portraits of Edwardian London. In the wrong hands it can feel as cumbersome as an ocean liner turning in tight dock. Here one immediately notices Petrenko’s stately approach, careful not to take things too fast. Contrast this with his way with the buoyant, high spirits that bring this score to such a satisfying conclusion.

These days my expectations of the Liverpool Phil under Petrenko are always extremely high. They certainly deliver in spades with a splendid performance of the Elgar First Symphony. Petrenko conducts an expansive reading of the blustery opening movement maintaining that crucial underlying sense of marching tension. With its scuttling and darting main theme the Scherzo-like second movement is afforded boldly impressive forward momentum that borders on the brash. Elgar’s expressive music has become associated with imagery especially of the Monarchy of Edwardian England. At one time I could visualise the pageantry of a ceremonial event in Whitehall. Now the music feels more like a rowdy Parliamentary debate. Petrenko’s transition to the heartbreaking theme of the Adagio is as seamless as I wanted. This is intensely passionate music: always tender, often dreamy and combined with the scent and sounds of nature. Towards the conclusion of the movement it feels as if Elgar is depicting the deep sorrow of lovers parting, perhaps on a long ocean voyage. In the final movement Petrenko provides resolute rhythms in a passage high in buccaneering spirit before the return of the principal march theme. This optimistic music boasts real grandeur and it is easy to imagine an important State occasion in say Horse Guards Parade. Especially impressive throughout is Petrenko’s masterly control of weight, phrasing and tempo. All combine to near spine-tingling effect.

Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé provides my first choice for the Elgar Symphony No. 1. It was recorded in 1970 at St Nicholas’ Chapel as part of the Kings Lynn Festival and can be heard on BBC Legends. This excellent Petrenko recording goes some way to match that Barbirolli disc but doesn’t quite have the same electric and dramatic intensity. The Onyx recording is good on clarity but a drawback is the wide dynamic range which requires considerable volume adjustment. For my taste I prefer more space around the sound-picture. The consistency of performance from the Liverpool Phil continues to impress and I’m sure many Elgarians will want to add this inspiring account of the Symphony No. 1 to their collections.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Ralph Moore


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