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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857 – 1934)
Symphony No 1 in A-flat major Op 55 (1908) [50:11]
Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. Festival Hall, Osaka 17 – 18 January 2019, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 22 January 2019. DSD
EXTON OVCL-00693 [50:11]

In The Symphony Volume 2: Mahler to the Present Day, first published by Penguin in 1967, David Cox, in his essay on Sir Edward Elgar, took no less than thirteen pages to cover the composer. Robert Simpson, in a scathing essay on Rachmaninoff, needed just three pages. Cox spends much of his time rescuing Elgar’s symphonic reputation from the dustbin of history; Simpson, meanwhile, seems quite happy to just trash Rachmaninoff’s. Cox’s opening question, “How far does Elgar transcend his era and give us something of lasting value?” certainly showed a scope of thinking that was not always obvious or fashionable in the late 1960s, especially at a time when it was being radicalised by the music of Stockhausen and Boulez, even in the intellectual pantheon of Glock’s revolutionary BBC. But then neither is his assessment that Elgar’s innate Englishness obscures the composer’s European musical forebears that stretched from Spohr through to Mendelssohn and Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz and Richard Strauss.

This differing critical viewpoint on two such outlier symphonic composers is today quite reversed. In the case of Rachmaninoff – especially in his views on the E minor symphony – Simpson’s essay now seems not only harsh, but plain wrong. On the other hand, as attracted as Cox was to the idea of Elgar transcending an era, it’s arguable he has remained frozen in some kind of symphonic stasis, especially outside Britain.

From the 1960s and into the 1970s, Elgar certainly found non-British conductors to champion his symphonies – William Steinberg in America, as well as Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta. Elgar’s symphonies remain challenging for non-British orchestras, however. This is perhaps one reason why no major French orchestra has played either of the symphonies, and it took until 2002 for the Wiener Philharmoniker to play the First. Technically, both are hugely difficult (not a particular problem for today’s orchestras), they can seem uncommonly long and Elgar’s almost kaleidoscopic way with thematic material can make them appear structurally weak – not a uniquely Elgarian problem, of course, since this might be equally applicable to some Bruckner, or even Mahler. Emotionally they dig deeper, too, than many post-Wagnerian works of similar stature with slow movements of breathtaking beauty. The Adagio of the A flat major isn’t just one Elgar’s greatest, it’s one of the finest of any post-Romantic symphony. They require conductors passionately committed to their performance, though for some of these conductors Elgar’s “Englishness” can be all but be erased in doing that.

Tadaaki Otaka is certainly no stranger to Elgar having honed his interpretations in both Britain and Japan over many decades. This Exton release, with the Osaka Philharmonic, is Otaka’s third recording of the First Symphony with a Japanese orchestra and his fourth of the symphony, if one includes his recording made in Cardiff. The earliest Tokyo performance, released on King in 2017 (and coupled with the Second and Third), was with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and is magnificent. If it probably sounds closer to a performance by Sinopoli or Colin Davis (live, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) that is no bad thing; nor that it owes as much to the opulence of Richard Strauss and the clarity of Beethoven or Schubert. Much of this has do with the sumptuous tonal weight and tightness of ensemble of the NHK Symphony, perhaps the most European of all Japanese orchestras and certainly the most technically accomplished. The playing has a stunning sense of ligature, which is to say the phrasing is taken in a single arc; Otaka is also considerate to the inherent nobility in the orchestral phrasing. These performances may emanate from Japan but there is absolutely nothing uninhibited or unidiomatic about the playing – it sounds Elgarian enough but betrays the influence of a wider European heritage. Only the heaviness of the lower string sound and the unbuttoned, rich gloss of the brass suggest a non-British orchestra at the helm. But listen to this performance blind and most listeners would probably be hard-pressed to identify the orchestra or conductor as Japanese.

The NHKSO has been playing Elgar since the 1920s, beginning with Salut D’Amour conducted by Hildemore Konoe, but the First Symphony didn’t reach Japan until the 1980s in a premiere given by the Japan Philharmonic conducted by James Loughran on 30th June 1980 in Tokyo. Even outside the main cultural centre of the Japanese capital, British music has been widely played, especially since the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 1970 visit to Osaka for Expo 70 when they programmed a British work for each concert they performed. Otaka’s current tenure in Osaka – and his willingness to programme Elgar – should probably not be a surprise.

Otaka is not a conductor who seems to me to change his interpretations significantly over time. All of his performances of the Elgar A-flat major are a similar tempo, none of them radically differ in concept and even down to phrasing there are identical touches which he maintains over decades of recording and then re-recording the work – and this is the case with many symphonies he conducts, such as Bruckner’s Eighth. Both the NHKSO and Osaka Philharmonic performances come from live concerts and they are clearly meticulously well prepared – though meticulous in no way suggests lacking the frisson of the live event itself. These are rather spontaneous, even electrifying Elgar performances. The playing on both is superlative, though some listeners may find the concert pitch, particularly of the Osaka Philharmonic, a little different than that of British orchestras – others won’t notice this difference at all. There is an undeniable edginess to some of the Osaka Philharmonic’s sound, especially in the range of the upper strings. On the other hand, you really wouldn’t want to question the extraordinary refinement and blended tone in the woodwind or brass, or that underlying depth in the cellos and basses.

There is nothing especially radical or revolutionary with what Otaka does with the A-flat major, but Exton’s engineering is of such clarity you sometimes think there is. If Elgar shares with Strauss a tendency to orchestrate on multiple layers the assumption should be that the listener gets to hear what the composer wrote. Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Philharmonia Orchestra recordings were peppered with unusual and fascinating detail but these were largely hampered by wilful mishandling of tempo; you get the former with Otaka without the latter. I was blown away on this Exton recording with some of the details: The Lento-Allegro is particularly impressive. The very beginning is incredibly atmospheric, with every pp and diminuendo documented with absolute precision, the harp arpeggio (Fig. 108), played against only the last desk lower strings, almost completely audible through every single note. For a live recording, the way the harps at the great theme at Fig.130 are recorded [from 6:21] left a considerable impact – and this goes on for 40 bars. As beautiful as the NHKSO play, this passage is nowhere near as clear – but that recording comes from 1991. A very brief bar of pizzicato playing in the Osaka performance – almost against full orchestra [9:31] – is entirely occluded in the NHK recording.

Over the years Japanese orchestras have somewhat tamed their brass sound – it is now considerably more homogenised – and there are distinctly different approaches to how the Osaka and Tokyo orchestras approach the Adagio. Otaka’s NHK players tend to dominate rather more; his Osaka players are significantly more restrained. Likewise, there is a wonderful character to his woodwind today, a shape and tenderness to the phrasing which eluded his recording almost thirty ago. There did seem to be a striking difference in the string sound depending on which headphones I listened to this performance – on a pair of Sennheiser’s the upper strings could sound a little strained; on the other hand, on Sony’s more recent WH-1000XM3 headphones the violins had greater richness and depth. Neither pair significantly diluted the cellos or basses. But what the Osaka players give us is an Adagio which doesn’t draw on sentimentality, nor come close to reflecting a mood of angst, which Sinopoli, in his least controversial, and more mainstream recording of the two Elgar symphonies, sometimes thought it did.

If there is perhaps a distinctly un-English approach to this performance, it can be heard in the very opening bars of the Andante. I’m not sure it’s a conscious decision to remove the concept of nobility from this opening, rather the idea that Otaka and his orchestra are already setting up the notion of conflict between those clashing keys – of D minor and A flat. But then, if you listen to the way Otaka brings the entire symphony to its close the very return of that opening theme owes more to Brahms than it does to anything specifically entrenched in nobility. The Allegro – played with swaggering precision, especially in the trio – can feel uncommonly dark but this, too, feels entirely in keeping with Otaka’s view of this symphony as European.

One oddity about this release is that it is somewhat inexplicably recorded over two concerts – but in two different cities, Osaka and Tokyo. I did initially wonder if this was one reason why the Adagio sounded slightly different acoustically than the rest of the performance (though, again, this was a headphone issue for me). There is absolutely no diminution in the quality of the playing, however, and Exton have, thankfully, made no editing errors. Applause is included and it is extraordinarily enthusiastic, but Elgar is widely embraced by Japanese concert-going audiences today.

There is much in this performance which is outstanding. The playing is exceptionally fine, the recording is – mostly – of the highest quality. Otaka’s view of Elgar’s A-flat challenges assumptions about this symphony only insofar as it offers an alternative to a British point of view. What Otaka does with Elgar’s score doesn’t overhaul the music in radical ways. Whilst anyone wanting this particular Exton recording will have to buy it from Japan, his NHK performance is available on YouTube as a concert, although you can still buy it as part of his complete cycle of the three Elgar symphonies on the King label. The video is entirely worth watching.

Marc Bridle

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