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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. September 2016, Watford Colosseum, Watford. DSD
CHANDOS CHSA5181 SACD [65:20]

I wonder if this release is a one-off or signals the start of an Elgar series from Edward Gardner. If it’s the latter then he’s off to a strong start.

The Introduction and Allegro is – or should be - a flamboyant opening for an Elgar disc. It’s not all that long ago that I was rather disappointed in a performance by the LSO String Ensemble and Roman Simovic (review). I’m much more taken with this Gardner reading, which is red-blooded and confident in a way that the Simovic, despite good playing, is not. I don’t think the reason is that Gardner uses a full body of strings – though that helps. Rather the success of the performance compared to the Simovic owes a great deal to the sense that there’s a firm hand on the tiller, just as there was in the classic Barbirolli recording (review). Barbirolli plays the work as a ‘big’ piece and so does Gardner.

I mustn’t give the impression, though, that this new performance is just a full-on account of the work; that would be grossly unfair since it contains many subtleties too. The Introduction, for example, is finely sculpted and when the violist of the Doric String Quartet (Hélène Clément) lets us hear the ‘Welsh’ theme for the first time her tone is lovely. It’s worth saying now that the recording differentiates nicely, but not at all artificially, the solo quartet from the main body of strings. One other point is that, uniquely in my experience, Chandos divide the piece up into three separate tracks: track 2 begins at the start of the Allegro and the opening of the fugue is at the start of track 3. This is useful. Once the Allegro gets going the music surges very well and I admire the clarity that Gardner and his players bring to the different voices. Just before the fugue we hear the ‘Welsh’ tune played with great delicacy and it sounds as if we’re hearing it in the distance, a most atmospheric effect. There’s excellent energy and articulation in the fugue. I would never want to be without the Barbirolli recording but this fine performance breathes a similar spirit and, of course, benefits from much better. modern sound. Gardner’s disc has begun very well.

At the start of the symphony Gardner unfolds the motto theme with noble simplicity and when Elgar repeats the theme on full orchestra there’s the proper grandeur. For a comparison I dug out Sir Mark Elder’s Hallé recording which, like Bob Briggs, I admire very much. Perhaps Gardner is slightly more fleet with the initial presentation of the motto but if so the difference is marginal. Gardner ensures that the Allegro surges with passion, as does Elder. In the quieter passages the BBCSO’s playing has admirable delicacy and I love the way that, throughout the whole performance, lots of details of Elgar’s wonderfully inventive scoring come out tellingly but in a very natural fashion. In the quicker episodes Gardner is suitably fiery and unsettled in his approach. I have the impression that in these passages he may press ahead even more urgently than does Elder but the differences are not great: both performances are hugely convincing. The subdued ending is brought off most successfully by Gardner.

I think I’m right in saying that the scurrying theme of the scherzo is the motto reversed, though so quickly does it whizz by that the listener would be hard put to discern that. This movement is bright and flashing in Gardner’s hands and, where appropriate, he brings real swagger to the proceedings. The episode which Elgar famously said should be played like something heard down by the river has just the right degree of lightness and delicacy (from 1:49). The wind-down into tranquillity at the movement’s end is beautifully managed as we slip seamlessly into the glorious slow movement. How ingenious of Elgar to transform completely the scurrying scherzo theme into the broad, generous Adagio while at the same time making the two themes identical, note-for-note There’s eloquence and unforced nobility in Gardner’s reading and the playing of the BBCSO is glowing. As we listen to this music – and this performance – the unsettled restlessness of the first movement seems a long way away. The closing pages of the Adagio are done with tenderness and a fine sense of repose, the orchestral playing wonderfully controlled.

We’re back to uncertainty, however, in the opening of the finale and here Gardner achieves fine tension as the shadowy march emerges tentatively from the shadows. The Allegro is biting and urgent, the pace very fast – just as Elder does; both performances are full of electricity. One of my favourite moments in all Elgar is the passage where miraculously Elgar transforms the march into a broad violin melody with rippling harp in support (6:21).This is excellently done here; at first the melody is expansive and gently radiant before it expands wonderfully with the addition of horns. This episode of lyrical warmth doesn’t last too long, though; Gardner and the orchestra respond eagerly when Elgar whips up the pace and the tension once again. The apotheosis of the motto theme at the end – signalling Elgar’s “massive hope for the future” – is splendidly done.

This is a very fine version of Elgar’s great symphony. There are several splendid recordings of the work in the catalogue already but Edward Gardner’s account, marvellously played by the BBCSO, is right up there with the best that I’ve heard. It helps that Chandos have recorded the performance in opulent sound. I listened to this SACD in its stereo option and was very impressed: the recording is rich and packs a punch but it also reveals a great amount of inner detail. The recording of Elder’s performance is sonically very good but Ralph Couzens’ engineering for Chandos has greater presence and impact. The booklet includes thought-provoking notes by Conor Farrington.

I’d like to hear this team in the Second Symphony and also in Anthony Payne’s reconstruction of Elgar’s sketches for the Third.

John Quinn

 

 




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