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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro, Op.47 (1901, 1905) [14:06] Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55 (1904, 1907-08) [51:04]
Doric String Quartet
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 5-6 September 2016, Watford Colosseum, Watford England DSD CHANDOS CHSA5181 SACD [65:20]
Over the years the Elgar Symphonies have come to be something of a touchstone for Chandos 'house' conductors. Focusing on No.1, first there was Bryden Thomson's 1985 LPO recording in All Saints Tooting, then Richard Hickox's 2006 BBC NOW from the Brangwyn Hall (a SACD recording as is this new disc). Not forgetting a decade before Thomson, there was a Chandos produced/engineered recording released on RCA with the then Scottish National Orchestra under Alexander Gibson from 1976. I had this LP but have no clear memory of its merits – it never made it to CD. So now, a decade on from Hickox give or take its time for another Chandos/Elgar 1 here in the hands of one of the new generation of Chandos artists; Edward Gardner.
In recent years Chandos seem to have settled on the Watford Colosseum as their preferred London recording venue and I have to say that the results from there are consistently very fine indeed and certainly a sonic improvement on many - not all - of the discs made in All Saints in the 80's. I have not heard Hickox's version but again the Brangwyn Hall has been a very successful recording venue for this label. The most immediate virtues of this new disc are the highly skilled playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the sophisticated excellence of the recording. This is not a disc that 'shows off' how well it has been engineered but rather time and again you are aware of how well Elgar's orchestration is revealed. Not in forensic detail but rather as an integrated whole. There is a wonderful deep bass drum which gently underpins key moments, instrumental voicings are integrated but distinct. Gardner is very good at ensuring the strings obey the minutiae of Elgar's markings - sul ponticello and carefully pointed accents all clearly present. Many of the most telling passages throughout the disc are the hushed ones. Additionally, the brass section of the BBC SO is beautifully balanced both as a unit within itself but also as part of the greater orchestral 'voice' whether playing with burnished brilliance or poised control.
This is a recording which, regardless of what one feels about the emotional/intellectual impulse behind the work, reveals yet again that Elgar was an instinctively brilliant orchestrator the like of which - quite literally - had never been heard from a British composer before him. Gardner makes one key choice; he seats his violins antiphonally in the style of Boult and Handley. This is without doubt the correct decision which pays dividends on nearly every page of the score. Elgar tosses phrases between the upper strings and the impact of this is so diminished if the ear cannot differentiate between the two violin groups because they are sitting side by side. So far so good. I have listened to this disc several times before writing this review and the more I listen the more I have the sneaking feeling that this is a good interpretation that has yet to develop into a great one.
Gardner makes a lot of good choices. To my ear his choice of the tricky opening tempo for the nobilmente motto theme is pretty much ideal. In fact it is almost identical to Vernon Handley's great 1979 LPO recording (recorded at Abbey Road) which in turn matches Boult's last recording of the work from a couple of years earlier - both engineered by Christopher Parker. Setting this tempo "right" is key to its transformative return at the symphony's final climax. That being said I rather like Haitink's weary disconsolate tempo in his Philharmonia recording. One of the recurring misapprehensions is that Boult was 'slow' in this work in his later years. By the stopwatch alone he is quicker than Gardner in each movement except the finale where the difference is just seven seconds. But in Elgar a total timing is a faulty guide - it is how phrases ebb and flow and sections bind together that is key. By this standard I find Gardner rather predictable; tasteful but predictable. Usually I would say play what the composer indicates and you won't go far wrong. Well that is certainly true here and much is fine but it is only when listened alongside a Boult or a Handley or a Barbirolli let alone the more contentious Haitink or Sinopoli and you realise that in each of those cases something more individual and distinctive is at work. Some may find it fussily interventionist but Haitink finds many more nuances in his phrasing of the opening paragraphs Gardner is much more linear and ultimately lacking individuality. Likewise, I find the second movement allegro molto to be superbly executed but lacking in the devilish convolutions that are quite without equal in British music at this time. The transition to the heart-stopping Adagio - molto espressivo is beautifully achieved but Gardner holds back from exposing the deepest emotional outpouring of this movement. Again the score is well and carefully observed but I do not feel the BBC players are being cajoled into the playing at the emotional extreme. Try Menuhin on Virgin - a notoriously wayward conductor technically - but here coaxing the RPO into a lyrical outpouring next to which this new recording sounds positively measured. Menuhin is a full minute longer here alone and I am sure some will feel he becomes almost becalmed by his own sentimentality but my instinct is that this is a risk worth taking. One minor disappointment in this new recording - this movement's closing bars are one of the great glories of Elgar's music culminating in a heart-breaking "gesture of farewell" from the principal clarinet. Somehow this moment is slightly lost here - certainly in comparison to Handley's player this new version lacks the last degree of melting poetry, perhaps a case where the clarity of the new disc works again the spirit of the music. Interestingly Christopher Parker's engineering for Handley is even more successful at dividing the strings across the stereo field and the collective sound of the LPO is even richer than the BBC SO.
Gardner's finale is well paced except for a choice in the very last pages where he pushes the tempo forward after the last great 'reveal' of the motto theme. It makes for an exciting and dynamic close but again I prefer Handley's evermore noble expansion which brings this remarkable work to such a powerful conclusion - to my ears somehow truer to the spirit of Elgar's "great hope in the future". Interestingly James Judd in his really excellent recording with the Halle does exactly the same as Gardner - Judd's performance once merited a Penguin Guide rosette and it certainly deserves to still be better known. So overall from Gardner an impressively recorded performance and one with moments and details of significant worth but ultimately an overview that does not yet challenge the greatest.
Much the same can be said of the surprisingly unusual coupling of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. Also unusually - but not uniquely - the 'sub' group of the string quartet is given to pre-existing quartet rather than the more usual practice of the front desk players. The most famous version to adopt such a practice is the classic recording - now roughly 55 years old - from Sir John Barbirolli and the Sinfonia of London which was a collaboration with the Allegri Quartet. Tellingly though, for all the stunning quality of their playing that recording is ever known as Barbirolli's performance and frankly so it should be. Although hard to see this as little but a marketing exercise - an orchestra boasting the superb Bradley Creswick as its leader need look no further for a stunning player of any solo part - the Doric Quartet here are excellent. Again Gardner is particularly good at paring back the tone and dynamics of the entire string group so that - for example - the first iteration of the "Welsh Tune" from which much of the music springs is hauntingly played with a gorgeously plaintive tone by the quartet's viola player Hélène Clément. Interpretatively this is the highlight of the entire disc for me - a moment when new light is thrown on a very familiar passage in a wholly convincing way. The warm acoustic of the Watford Colosseum again helps and the BBC strings sound like a satisfyingly full symphonic section. Again this is surely right; this is a piece that needs the weight of massed strings rather than simply the agility of a smaller elite group. Barbirolli benefitted from the Kingsway hall and the other famed recording from Benjamin Britten in 1969 was recorded in the generous acoustic of the Snape Maltings by the crack Decca team of Ray Minshull, Kenneth Wilkinson and Gordon Parry. Britten's front desk players were pretty stellar too - violist Cecil Aronowitz producing a more consciously 'golden' tone which is breathtakingly beautiful in its own right but probably Clément's approach serves the greater good of the piece just a fraction more.
Elgar styled the central fugato passage "a devil of a fugue" - it is a sign of just how far ensemble string playing has progressed that few if any string groups sound the least perturbed by the tricky writing. But it is worth noting the demands Elgar makes of the players. The score in general but this passage in particular is littered with fffz, ff sul G (with accents) and similar marking exhorting the players to push the instruments to the technical extreme. These kind of markings might have been relatively common in the emotionally suspect(!) music of Tchaikovsky but I cannot think of another British score from around the turn of the 20th century which 'pushes' players in this way. The liner makes the valid comment that Elgar uses the main and sub string groups in a quasi-concerto grosso manner. Interesting then to wonder whether basic tempo choices by conductors are based on a perception of how a baroque fugato passage might be played. Certainly Barbirolli chooses a very steady pace for the fugue - with plenty of bite and dynamism but not too much of the devil. Britten with the showpiece recording is substantially faster and I really like the way the English Chamber Orchestra players dig in. Gardner is easily the nimblest and quickest of the three. But with that easy virtuosity comes a lack of the diabolic - in a rather odd way this more of a Mendelssohn scherzo with boots on than anything more devilish.
Over the years this work has been recorded many many times but in all honesty I am not sure any versions have displaced those two older recordings in the pantheon of the truly great. Even Elgar stalwarts such as Boult, Handley and the rest have not seriously challenged those performances at the top of the tree. This is not a case of backward-looking nostalgia, simply a case where certain performances have never been bettered or even equalled. That said this Gardner version is a very enjoyable, fluent and brilliantly played performance well worth an audition.
Backing up the music making here is the usual high-quality Chandos presentation with very good engineering allied to a liner that contains the usual tri-lingual essay. In this instance a particularly well-researched and well written one by Conor Farrington. There are no revelations anyone who has read a reasonable biography of Elgar will not already know, but he brings together insightful quotes about the composer and music and finds a good balance between the socio/historical context of the work and a degree of musical analysis. If this proves to be the start of another Chandos survey of Elgar's music with this time Gardner at the helm there is enough here to merit hearing another volume but not enough to suggest that previous favourite versions will be supplanted.