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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A flat major op.55 [54:35]
In the South op.50 [19:54]
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. January 2012 (Symphony) and March 2013, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome

An Italian orchestra, an Anglo-Italian conductor and an Elgar symphony – what an inspired combination! Antonio Pappano has produced a stream of fine recordings with the Santa Cecilia orchestra, the pick of Italian symphonic ensembles. But this is the first Elgar for the partnership, and I must say, the orchestra have taken to it with obvious relish. As Anthony Burton points out in his booklet notes, it tends to be assumed that only English (or British) conductors and orchestras can really do Elgar. This conveniently forgets that the première of the First Symphony, back in 1908, was conducted by the great German conductor Hans Richter, and more recently, musicians from other countries have produced fine recordings – Solti and Barenboim to name but two.

And of course another Anglo-Italian was unsurpassed in this composer’s music – Barbirolli, whose 1960s recording of the symphony is a ‘gold standard’ for this great masterpiece.

It has to be remembered that this is a record of a live concert; and I think most listeners will find that pretty obvious. There are numerous tiny lapses of ensemble – totally unimportant in a concert context, but I suppose a little more relevant when listening to a recording. Pappano himself is quite noisy, emitting sighs and puffs, often heavy-footed on the podium, and one is quite often aware of the rustling of orchestral page-turns. The audience are pretty quiet, except between the slow movement and finale, where their re-settling sounds merge into the pianissimo of tremolo strings! Do you really mind these things? I don’t, myself, at all, and in a thrilling, no-holds-barred performance like this, they simply enhance the illusion of being at a live event.

Pappano is at pains, in the outer movements, to keep things moving forward; this can seem hurried at times, and the fine Brahmsian second theme in the finale really does get the ‘bum’s rush’ – especially in the recapitulation. But the pay-off comes at the culmination of each movement; the first moves inexorably to the massive crisis at the start of the coda, while the finale hastens with growing urgency towards the return of the motto-theme in all its glory.

The middle movements are brilliantly characterised, the Santa Cecilia violins throwing off the rapid semiquavers of the scherzo with nonchalant ease. The slow movement is very beautiful, though just a little lacking in breadth for the main theme. The recording may be guilty for the relatively colourless impact of the solo violin and clarinet arabesques – a moment of epiphanic brightness that should set off the golden tones of the rest of the movement. Yet once again, Pappano knows his way to the ‘G-spot’ – the hushed intimacy of the new theme that introduces the coda. Here, the strings produce sublime pianissimo playing, full of soft intensity, and the overall impression of the movement is wonderfully sustained.

So a superb reading of the work; it does have the drawback of the small imperfections of ensemble I mentioned above. And the recording, while vivid, has its eccentricities of balance – woodwind sometimes fail to project enough, and the percussion, bass drum in particular, have a little too much presence. But the string sound is exemplary, and all in all this is eminently worth hearing. It won’t lure me away from my two favourite recordings – Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia and Elder with the Hallé – but I would still recommend it most strongly.

A word about In the South. This is one of Elgar’s toughest pieces to bring off; he was usually so brilliant at transitions from one section of music to another, but that let him down somewhat in this piece – some of the joins show a bit too much! And that is the weakest aspect of this performance; not Pappano’s, more the orchestra’s, who are understandably unfamiliar with the Elgarian style. Again, percussion are too present; in the opening section, there are off-beat strokes in the bass drum, marked piano in the score, yet which are tub-thumpingly loud. And, in the ineffable moonlit section, the ensemble between the viola solo (though beautifully played) and the rest of the strings is decidedly dodgy.

That said, this performance has massive drive and passion, echoing Elgar’s own words at first hearing the piece – “…the thing goes with tremendous energy and life”. Quite so!

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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