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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op 63 (1903-04, 1909-11) [54:56]
Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op 20 (1892) [11:31]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, Watford, UK. DSD

Last year I welcomed a recording by this same conductor and orchestra of Elgar’s First symphony. I wondered then if the release would be the start of an Elgar series. That question remains fully to be answered but now we have a recording of the Second symphony, made in the same venue some 10 months later.

The Second symphony received a somewhat mixed response when it was first heard in 1911, a matter of weeks before the Coronation of King George V. As Conor Farrington makes clear in his very good notes, the critical reception was pretty favourable even if the first audience didn’t greet it as warmly as Elgar had hoped. Certainly, the new symphony didn’t achieve the immediate and runaway success of its predecessor. Perhaps that’s because, lacking the noble motto theme of the First, it appeared more introspective. We could debate for ages the extent to which introspection and ambiguity lies beneath the surface of the First – much more than I suspect many of its first audiences perceived – but the very introspection that marks out the Second makes it, in my opinion, an even greater achievement.

The first movement opens in a blaze of striding energy, very well conveyed by Gardner and his orchestra. It’s not long, however, before we encounter the much more inward-looking second subject (2:10) which is here played with suitable delicacy. Already the listener is aware of the quality of the Chandos sound which presents a splendid overall view of the music while at the same time allowing through a copious amount of inner detail, such as the horn parts. The subdued and pensive development section is very well done by Gardner; the troubled undercurrents are clear to hear. At 10:17 the recapitulation begins, swiftly gathering pace, and the sense of surface confidence returns. The splendid playing of the BBCSO and Chandos’ fine sound serve to remind the listener that the orchestration of this movement, indeed of this symphony, is of Straussian richness and invention.

The slow movement is a deeply expressive elegy. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of the late King Edward VII and it’s certain that the late king – and probably the age to which he gave his name – is being mourned here. That said, Conor Farrington reminds us that the thematic origins lie in sketches that Elgar made back in 1903 following the death of a close friend, Alfred E Rodewald. Significantly, Elgar bestowed his favourite marking, Nobilmente, on this movement though he qualified the marking with the words e semplice. And despite all the elegiac grandeur of the music, the movement is essentially simple in utterance – but patrician and heartfelt too. Gardner invests the music with suitable dignity but he also maintains just the right degree of momentum so that there’s never a danger of mawkish sentimentality. The movement is magnificent from first to last but it contains one particularly inspired passage (from 7:24) where the oboe plays a poignant countermelody in triplets against the main theme. Is it too fanciful to think that this represents an observer, perhaps Elgar himself, reflecting while the regal cortege passes by? Gardner leads a very fine account of this movement and I very much admire the hushed intensity at the very end.

According to the notes, the Rondo took Elgar just a week to compose and one can readily believe it, so urgent does the music seem. This present performance is a splendid one with the incisiveness of the timpanist a special source of pleasure. The potent passage (from 4:54) where the percussion play against the music like a pounding headache is very exciting, the whole ensemble driven on by those terrific timps. The closing moments (from 7:24) are a riot of orchestral pyrotechnics and the BBCSO delivers in spades; here the horns are exuberant.

The finale opens with a memorable rolling theme, here richly voiced. The second subject, which Elgar described as “Hans [Richter] himself” is presented in glowing colours and here again the BBC horns distinguish themselves in their telling counterpoint. In passing, I do believe that this symphony represents the high-water mark of Elgar’s writing for the horns; his horn parts were consistently marvellous but attain a new peak of inventiveness in this score. The movement, with its mixture of opulence and reflection, unfolds very satisfyingly in Gardner’s hands until the gently glowing coda is reached (11:26). Surely, we hear in the pages that follow, echoes of the ending to Brahms’ Third symphony, which was Elgar’s favourite among the Brahms canon. This coda, based on the ‘Spirit of Delight’ motif, is a miraculous summing up of what has gone before and almost seems to anticipate the phrase attributed to Sir Edward Grey on the outbreak of World War I about the lamps going out all over Europe. Elgar may not have quite felt that, but did he perhaps sense that with the passing of King Edward VII in some ways lamps were at least starting to dim in Britain?

This is a very impressive traversal of the Second symphony by Edward Gardner, for whom the BBCSO plays with great commitment and finesse. It’s a reading that contains both excitement and poetry.

As he did on the previous release, Gardner offers a work for strings in addition to the symphony. Previously, it was Elgar’s magnum opus for string orchestra, the Introduction and Allegro. Here we can enjoy the more modest Serenade for Strings. Modest it may be, especially when it stands in the shadows of the Second symphony, but it’s still a charmer and Gardner gives a nicely-turned performance. The opening Allegro piacevole is sprightly and amiable, though I wonder if a very slightly easier tempo might have yielded even better results. The wistful and tender Larghetto is expressively done. The finale shows the lighter side of Elgar, the music highly attractive and showing expert craftsmanship.

I enjoyed this disc very much. At the end of my review of his recording of the First symphony I expressed the hope that Edward Gardner would also set down the Second symphony. I’m very glad that he has done so and I believe that he has here matched the achievement of his earlier Elgar disc. Anyone who invested in that should not hesitate. The full-blooded and richly detailed Chandos sound, to which I listened as a stereo SACD, and the label’s customary good documentation just add to the attractions of this release.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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