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Em Marshall
Albion Magazine Online, September 2009

In the continuing ‘Elgar conducts Elgar’ series on the Naxos Historical label, this CD reaches new heights. Elgar’s original 1930s EMI electrical recordings of the First Symphony and Falstaff have been re-issued previously on both LP and CD, and the versions here are re-mastered from fine original 78s rather than the master recordings that EMI used in the seventies and eighties. However, this does not in any way detract from their quality. The transfers are superb, with a very warm sound, minimal hiss and few clicks.

Elgar’s own interpretation of his First Symphony has always been at the forefront of the available recordings, despite the inevitable limitations of its sound quality. It was listening to this very recording that inspired Georg Solti’s ground-breaking LP with the LPO in the seventies, which dispelled the myth that the work is over-long, self-indulgent, ponderous, jingoistic, and tub-thumping (all these adjectives have been used to describe it) and revealed it instead as a cogently-argued symphonic tour de force. It is common to hear live and recorded performances lasting well over one hour. It is incredible that Elgar takes only forty-six minutes (less than the time of fifty-one minutes that the marking in the full score suggests). The symphony proceeds from beginning to end with tremendous sweep and panache, in a superlative interpretation that shows why its dedicatee, Hans Richter, described it as the “greatest symphony of modern times.”

In addition, the disc contains one of the last recordings that Elgar made. The symphonic study Falstaff was regarded by Elgar as his best orchestral work, and this finely-wrought performance certainly demonstrates that it was one of his most inspired. Yet again the LSO (of whom Elgar was the first principal conductor) are on tremendous form and it is hard to accept that this work was recorded nearly eighty years ago—both in terms of the scintillating playing and the sound. Again, the transfer seems warmer, quieter and more immediate than the EMI remasters of thirty years ago. Given the complexity of the score, it is not surprising that some of the orchestral detail is obscured (and the final scene seems to me a little understated). On the whole, however, this is a brilliant rendition on a very highly recommended CD.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, May 2009

…from 1926 onwards Elgar had been systematically setting down on disc authoritative accounts of his own compositions—including the two symphonies, the violin concerto, the cello concerto, the Enigma variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches—using the latest electrical recording technology with its much improved sound.

That whole recording project testified to the remarkable drive and determination that Elgar still exhibited well into his eighth decade—and, appropriately enough, when it comes to the individual interpretations that he set down on disc in those years, they too are frequently characterised by the same remarkable vim and vigour.

YouTube offers a fascinating, if tantalisingly brief, piece of film in which Elgar directs the London Symphony Orchestra in part of his Pomp and Circumstance march no.1 and, before he begins, asks the musicians to “play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before”. One suspects that he may well have adopted the same blowing-the-cobwebs-away approach in this recording of the first symphony, a score that can easily be—and has frequently been—played, on the contrary, as a sort of comfortable, nostalgic musical depiction of the British Empire at its zenith.

Thus it is that this account of the opening movement is far more direct and purposeful than is often the case, wrapped up in just 17:14 (Barbirolli’s rightly much-admired live recording from the 1970 King’s Lynn Festival on BBC Legends BBCL 4106-2 adds no less than an extra 3½ minutes). Elgar is similarly forthright in the third movement adagio, with a timing of just 10:16: even Sir Georg Solti’s iconoclastic 1972 studio account, often credited with restoring the composer’s own propulsive approach to the mainstream after two decades dominated by Barbirolli and Boult, is almost two minutes longer.

There is also no doubt that Elgar’s emphasis throughout this performance is well and truly on the disquieting elements of angst that lie just below the symphony’s surface. Thus, from 9:20 onwards in the finale, when one might have expected the great nobilmente tune of the opening movement to return as some sort of triumphant climactic peroration, the composer instead chooses to emphasise the strings that slash disruptively across the melody. It is almost as if Elgar, who, as we know, had been deeply affected by the tragedy and waste of the First World War and the widespread sense of moral collapse that followed in its wake, is pointing out that the surface self-confidence of the Edwardian era’s had, in reality, been fundamentally self-destructive and flawed…

Falstaff, acknowledged from its very first performance as a difficult work “that the public used to the older Elgar will not assimilate very easily” (Ernest Newman), also dates from before the First World War. But Ian Julier’s booklet notes suggest persuasively that it too demonstrates, beneath the surface, a sense of the composer’s increasing alienation and disillusionment. This performance—conveying even more of sense of occasion, no doubt, as it was set down on the opening day of EMI’s new Abbey Road studios—is both gripping and authoritative and, like that of the symphony, should certainly be heard, in the unlikely event that it hasn’t already been, by any admirer of Elgar’s music.

The London Symphony Orchestra’s association with Elgar and his music went back, of course, a long way, ever since the Enigma Variations had featured prominently in the orchestra’s very first concert on 9 June 1904. There was clearly a high degree of admiration on both sides and the performances recorded on this disc—though very much characteristic of their time in such features as frequent portamento—are excellent examples of the standards that English musicians of the inter-war period could reach when suitably inspired.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration work has been praised so frequently by me and other reviewers that it seems almost unnecessary to add that it is of his usual high standard here. Modern technology, able to retrieve long-lost sounds, has rescued many old 78 rpm recordings from oblivion. These particular interpretations are so central to the Elgar discography that their importance has always been recognised, but it is good to hear them in this new incarnation in the very best possible sound and to see them marketed at a price that makes them available to the widest possible audience.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, April 2009

Having had a very good experience with the Naxos Historical re-mastering of Elgar conducting the Enigma Variations [8.111022], I jumped at the chance to listen to what Mark Obert-Thorn had made of the more or less contemporaneous recordings of the Symphony No.1 and Falstaff.

I do feel somewhat privileged to be able to experience the state-of-the-art in this music, represented by a marvellous recording on Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox, and the very earliest of recordings conducted by the composer himself. For a start these old recordings have brushed up remarkably well. There is an ongoing gnash of shellac underlying the whole thing, but a de-clicking module has removed most of the surface hash without squashing the treble in the music or the dynamic range in the sound. These are of course elderly mono recordings, and are a little thin and desiccated in places, but so would you be after 79 years. I was going to say it’s a bit like listening to Elgar through a telephone, but that would be unfair. Instrumental solos and orchestral texture are quite clear, and you can hear the London Symphony Orchestra playing their socks off from the deepest basses to the fine filaments of solo violin which rise above.

The Symphony No.1 is something of an enigma in this recording. Ian Julier mentions significant portions of the performance as being “lit by cool, undeniably beauty rather than honest inner revelation.” He adds that “It would be interesting to know whether Elgar would have conducted these passages in the same way twenty years earlier.” We can of course speculate, and Elgar’s own self-doubts and changes in attitude later in life no doubt play their role, but to my mind it is also of importance to bear in mind the kind of strangeness in which people lived in this period. Things had changed after World War I, but many things had also retained the appearance of staying the same. There was an underlying sense of the decay in the old order which can be sensed in literary works such as Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust of 1934, whose very title derives from even stranger and more modern stuff such as T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land of 1922. I hear Elgar dashing through the martial elements early into the second movement as if they were an embarrassing anachronism rather than statements of heroic intent. The dead of the Great War had yet to cast their stain on this music in 1908, and its symbolism may well have felt at odds with Elgar’s sensitivities thereafter.

The Adagio third movement is possibly less expansive and involving than one might expect, but this might be explained by the limitations of a recording situation such as it would have been in this period, with short takes and other artificial elements not really comparable with a live concert. This is still a fine performance and I’m not looking to make excuses, but neither am I always looking for deep psychological reasons for Elgar’s reading of his own music. There are still many elegiac and beautiful moments in this movement however, and the sense of shape and direction are as coherent and striking as any recording I know. The final Allegro drives with a great deal of urgency, but all of those nooks and corners of noble contrast are all present and correct. Anyone interested in comparing standards in orchestral playing then and now would be fascinated to hear how the LSO deal with this intense and athletic piece. Only one or two exposed violin passages reveal touches of strain, otherwise intonation and articulation are highly disciplined and a model for performers even today. The brass deserves particular mention in this regard, with plenty of refined colour in the sound, and well balanced almost entirely throughout.

Falstaff–Symphonic Study in C minor, Op.68 is well matched in terms of sound, though with the orchestra initially sounding a little more distant and less well defined in the new Abbey Road Studio No.1. This was the inaugural recording at this location, and everyone concerned seems to have taken to it like ducks to water. I used not to be such a fan of Elgar’s Falstaff, but the wit in the playing on this recording has gone some way towards restoring my affections for this programmatic tour de force. The nice thing about hearing the work in this eminent and ancient context is that the cinematic images which spring to mind are also grainy and black-and-white—a semantic synergy which seems to fit; hand in gauntlet. Again, the playing is marvellous, and while there are fewer moments of overt emotional involvement and connection amongst all that ‘rumpty pumpty’ orchestral barnstorming the gentler sections such as the Dream Interlude have a touching sensitivity. That bizarre, cut-off ending has never sounded quite so final: Falstaff really isn’t coming back after that, not even for a final curtain call.

These are performances which rank highly in their own right, and Naxos have once again done us a remarkable service by bringing us Elgar’s own late interpretations in such refreshingly serviceable sound. These are ‘must have’ recordings for all genuine Elgar fans, and can teach us much about the man and the times. I’m glad to live in an age of hi-fi, but am equally fascinated by the view we can have of the past from this kind of recording—it’s about the closest we’re ever likely to come to time travel after all.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

There has an incredible amount of nonsense written claiming that Elgar’s fast tempos were the result of the short disc sides onto which he was recording. Such conjecture can be shown as worthless, many of his most mercurial tempos being coming on disc sides that were underused. Though he was seventy-three when he made this recording of the First Symphony, it is a very youthful, flexible and vigorous approach, never, even in the slow third movement, assuming the nostalgic mood that later brought a totally different approach from Barbirolli in his iconic discs with the Hallé. There is certainly plenty of swagger and Elgar received the most enthusiastic playing from the London Symphony. Ironically it is another Naxos release from the BBC Philharmonic, with George Hurst conducting, that presents us with an almost identical account that has the advantage of modern sound. Elgar’s approach to Falstaff was in the style of a Richard Strauss tone poem, the pictures of the amorous Knight clearly detailed and sympathetic to the character. Those famous orchestral snores are not exaggerated as is common today, yet the final death scene is uncommonly moving. The same coupling of these early 1930s recordings has already appeared, but I like this transfer where no attempt is made to enhance the sound. It is simply presented as clean as possible from the surface defects that were on the original masters. A ‘must have’ for the multitude of Elgar admirers, and at a very low price.

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