, June 2007
Elgar’s recordings of his own music have come to be regarded as one of the great achievements of gramophone history, but it was not ever thus. In his own day Elgar was not looked upon as an invariably effective conductor. Bernard Shore, the leading viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the thirties, played under him on several occasions and recalled in “The Orchestra Speaks” (Longmans 1938, p.134):
Elgar in his later life conducted some things extremely well, though he was perhaps never quite first-rate. His command of the stick increased with his years, and though he did not overcome a certain woodenness and failed to accompany his concertos well, his variations and particularly ‘Falstaff’ and the 2nd Symphony were admirable under his direction. He had a great admiration for the orchestra and showed it in his attitude towards the players, who consequently did their utmost. Never was he seen to lose patience, and certainly never his dignity.
If dignity still means something, Elgar personified it in the great sense. There was never any affectation, and that grand figure facing the orchestra at a concert of his own works, near the end of his long journey, has left a picture that will never be dimmed in the minds of those present.
I felt obliged to include the second paragraph, without which the reservations expressed at the beginning might seem grudging indeed. It has to be remembered that the failure to record Kreisler in the Violin Concerto was due to Gaisberg’s insistence that Elgar must conduct it and Kreisler’s feeling that he wasn’t really up to it.
In the earlier LP era, up to the end of the 1960s, the full range of material conducted by Elgar was practically unknown and inaccessible. A handful of recordings, including the 2nd Symphony, were put on LP for the centenary in 1957 and Pearl began to transfer the early acoustic 78s as they gradually came out of copyright. Then, during the 1970s, the American Elgar expert Jerrold Northrop Moore began to persuade EMI of the importance of these recordings which were then transferred in their totality. Moore was also an enthusiastic writer and broadcaster on the subject and the revised perception came about that these recordings actually enshrined Elgarian basics that had been forgotten over the years. A further boost came when Georg Solti took an interest in the music and explained in the inevitable interview that he had listened to recordings of the symphonies under Barbirolli and Boult, but had become convinced when he heard the composer’s own recordings.
This sort of reassessment is a fairly familiar one with composer-conducted recordings. Those under Walton have also acquired authority with the passing years. In his case I can personally testify that he didn’t look like a conductor, beating time stiffly and rather woodenly. Probably Elgar gave a similar impression. However orchestras, while they have short shrift with a so-called professional conductor with such a limited technique, will take a lot of trouble to understand the intentions of a composer whom they admire for his music. Especially if the composer treats them with respect, as Elgar did.
The most problematic movement of the second symphony to modern ears will be the finale. After a fairly steady opening Elgar stomps through the second subject like a military march and even its continuation, so memorably quoted in “The Music Makers”, is hustled through. The final meltdown is made to seem unprepared, almost tacked on. For as long as this remained the only recording available, those who claimed that Elgar’s symphonies were merely jingoistic had a powerful weapon in their hands.
It is also disconcerting – if exciting – to find Elgar ramming through his many tempi changes in the first movement as if they didn’t exist, and the question must be asked whether his stick technique would have enabled him to obtain them. On the other hand the hushed playing he gets at the beginning of the development is memorable, as is much of the slow movement. Here was another case, though, where I felt the music needed more space to express itself. Way back in 1968 Roger Fiske made an interesting point when reviewing the Boult/Lyrita recording for Gramophone:
That famous wailing counter-theme on the oboe at the recapitulation seems clearer than I ever remember it. Before the war one was only just aware of it, and I’m not sure that it benefits from quite so much emphasis, though this may be just conservatism on my part (Gramophone 10/1968 p.503).
Nowadays, conservative ears may wonder at a performance which barges through this moment leaving the oboe to fend for itself in the background.
Boult’s five recordings of this symphony progressively take their distance from the jingoistic view. His final version is, in my view, one of his greatest records. The apparently triumphal mood is undermined from the beginning and the result is a personal, as opposed to a national, statement. All such opinions are necessarily subjective, though, and Rob Barnett feels very differently.
Boult once admitted in an interview that nobody had been able to match the “nervous fire” with which Elgar conducted his own music. But he also told Trevor Harvey that he had once listened to Elgar’s recording of one of his symphonies before conducting it at a Promenade concert and regretted having done so, since he then hurried his own performance. I wonder if the audience agreed that he had hurried the music, though. [Scholarship requires that the source of such quotations be revealed. I can only say that the former came from a radio interview which may or may not be conserved in the BBC archives while the latter could be found in Gramophone with a little patience].
Boult, Barbirolli and first-generation Elgarians certainly felt they were doing Elgar a favour in applying their professional skills to the music and giving it that little extra space to communicate itself to the public. For the public of their own day they were surely right. Leonard Slatkin has more recently said that, wonderful as Elgar’s own recordings are, they sometimes seem to have been made for “other ears”. [Again, I’m quoting from memory an interview given in Gramophone]. Georg Solti’s attempt to reinstate Elgar’s own tempi has remained practically isolated. In general the modern trend, as exemplified by Thomson, Sinopoli, Haitink et al, has been towards tempi that make Boult and even Barbirolli sound frisky by comparison. This is presumably the way the late 20th century wanted to hear its Elgar.
How wonderful, though, that the work of each generation of Elgarian interpreters is preserved so that later generations can learn from it. And how wonderful, especially, that the composer’s own interpretations can be heard in more than acceptable sound for the date, carefully transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn. The disc also includes the first take of part one of the Rondo, remade because of some extraneous noises and a patch of untidy playing. In the 1970s a few minutes of the rehearsal were also issued. Since copyright lapses 50 years from the issue date, not the recording date, this was not available to Naxos. [see footnote]
In spite of Shore’s claim that Elgar did not accompany his concertos well, he seems to have managed them successfully enough with certain artists whose interpretations pleased him. One such was apparently not Felix Salmond, who gave the first performance of the cello concerto with the composer conducting, but he immediately warmed to Beatrice Harrison. They made an abridged recording as early as 1919 and Elgar thereafter always asked to have her as soloist when he was to perform this work. The interpretation was well tried and tested by 1928, therefore.
For modern ears it was the Du Pré/Barbirolli recording which made history. More recently its slow tempi have been questioned, often citing the Harrison/Elgar as evidence. For myself I would be content with Pini/van Beinum for a return to Elgarian basics. The concept is much the same but Harrison’s style can seem a little dated today. Those phrases in the scherzo in which the cellist holds back the orchestra, for example. They are very slow, with big portamenti between every note. I was also interested to find the first movement a little slower than I expected it to be, but the third movement and the slower parts of the finale all show how our ideas of slow tempi have stretched out to breaking point over the years.
Here, then, are some essential documents of British musical history. I hope Naxos will gradually cover the entire Elgar-conducted repertoire.