Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55 [48:53] Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40 [14:26]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2009, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK ONYX 4145 [63:19]
When I saw Vasily Petrenko conduct Elgar’s Second Symphony live in 2011, and again when this CD was released, a few critics eagerly examined the question of whether his interpretations were “English” enough. There was a curious desire in some newspapers to decide if Petrenko’s readings were too Russian, or if perhaps that Russianness was a good thing.
Listening to this CD, I don’t hear anything Russian about it at all. This is idiomatic, English Elgar, which hits the right marks. Certainly you won’t mistake it for Rachmaninov. At the same time, there are parts of the disc where the playing feels a bit too tame and “safe”.
This is most of all the case in the Cockaigne Overture, where even from about 0:30 the attacks and climaxes don’t have the impact I would like. The brass aren’t nearly as rambunctious as on Sakari Oramo’s spectacular recent Bis recording, let alone the likes of Boult or Barbirolli. The overture’s finale, though nicely augmented with organ, just isn’t as impressively grand as it could be. Perhaps we can blame the inflexible tempos which render the faster passages slightly unexciting and slower ones slightly unfeeling.
The Symphony is better. The introduction feels tentative, mysterious and haunted, which is an original conception. As a whole the Symphony is played very quickly: in each of the last three movements, Petrenko is even faster than Georg Solti was for Decca in the 1970s. The Liverpool Philharmonic’s playing is as dazzling as you’d expect, particularly the woodwind soloists, and the scherzo is a thriller. I find the finale pretty satisfying, too.
If there is a weakness to this performance, it’s the Adagio, which is rather hasty and, in the last few minutes, not nearly as emotionally affecting as my favoirite readings. I’m thinking especially of Barbirolli and Tate, both on EMI. Compared to them, this performance of those final moments feels a bit rote.
Sound quality is good in some respects but not others. The bass is especially good; bass drum and organ register magnificently but the feeling of the concert-hall space is weird. Certain instrumental sections sound eccentrically separated, and although the woodwinds are captured very well; as for the brass it is sometimes as if they are in small alcoves hidden away at the back.
In conclusion, this is a perfectly good recording of the Symphony No. 1, and a mediocre recording of the Cockaigne Overture. If you want to hear the best new performances of this music, try Oramo on BIS, or maybe Elder on Hallé. I’m a huge admirer of Vasily Petrenko’s conducting, and have loved the results of his collaboration with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. That said, even the best athletes don’t win gold medals in every race.