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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. 2016, Watford Colosseum, Watford. DSD CHANDOS CHSA5181 SACD [65:20]
Not so long ago there was a consensus among reviewers that the mid-20th century and earlier years produced the most outstanding recorded performances of so many works and they rued the fact that so many recordings of recent years could not reach such elevated standards. Here is a case in point and other reviewers of this recording have favoured earlier recordings of this symphony particularly that of Sir Adrian Boult. For myself I have always regarded – and still do - that of ‘Glorious’ Sir John Barbirolli as my benchmark for performances of Elgar’s First Symphony.
Now let me say right away that Gardner’s recording is very good and he has been aided by excellent sound (except perhaps for the harps but we’ll come on to that a bit later) from the Chandos engineers. I cannot fault Gardner’s reading of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. A wonderful performance, with beautifully judged participation by the Doric String Quartet, which can be set beside Barbirolli’s celebrated 1962 recording.
But before moving on to Gardner’s recording of Elgar’s First Symphony I would like to make an observation or two. Edward Gardner was born in 1974 and therefore has had no first-hand experience of life in the early 20th century. Sir Adrian Boult, who knew Elgar personally, lived from 1889 to 1983 and Barbirolli lived from 1899 until 1970. Both men lived through and experienced the time when this work was composed and therefore I would venture to maintain that they had a deeper understanding and empathy with this First Symphony which was outstandingly successful in its day.
To Gardner’s performance. It is very good but there are reservations in my mind that prohibit me from suggesting that it is outstanding, outstanding enough to merit ‘Recording of the Month’ status. A relatively minor point first. The score calls for two harps; you can see them in the booklet photographs of the orchestra in the recording sessions. The recorded sound recesses them, so that they sound shadowy throughout, the sparkle and brilliance they might have contributed is missing. More serious for me was the closing pages of the Adagio – surely one of Elgar’s most inspired creations. Those horn calls at the very end ought to give a sense of perspective and even a sense of the mystical, but they just sounded lumpy to this reviewer.
I mentioned the Barbirolli recording of the Elgar First Symphony above. May I draw readers’ attention to this incredible 2-CD bargain on Major Classics (M2CD008) – Barbirolli’s recording and much more.