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BBC Music Magazine, September 2019

The concerto’s first complete recording, under the baton of the composer himself. © 2019 BBC Music Magazine

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Mark Obert-Thorn’s new transfers of Elgar’s own recordings, made in 1927 in London’s Queen’s Hall and in 1928 in Kingsway Hall, bring the music-making to life with astonishing realism. One marvels at the absence of disturbing background noise and, in the symphony, the sheer quality of the orchestral sound, with a remarkable dynamic range—for these were among EMI’s first electrical orchestral recordings. Especially in the symphony, one soon sits back and listens to Elgar’s own electrifying performance. The composer’s sense of line, his ability to mould rhythms, with speeds often faster than usual today, regularly brings an extra emotional thrust and the most poignant intensity in pianissimos. This applies also to the Cello Concerto, with Beatrice Harrison’s simple eloquence and delicacy of feeling matched by the composer, although here the recording balance is more confined. As an unusual bonus we are offered the first (unused) take of the Scherzo of the symphony.

Christopher Howell
MusicWeb International, 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.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, May 2007

These performances are essential listening for Elgarians. Both are flawed in execution, but both are valuable historical documents. The recording of the Second Symphony is more than that.; It is a genuinely exciting recording in its own right.

Elgar was just a couple of months shy of his 70th birthday when he took up the baton to record his second symphony for the second time. He had been dissatisfied with his acoustic recording of three years before, and he conducts this performance as if he has a point to prove. Energy levels are high, and anyone expecting an autumnal reading from a musical elder statesman will be surprised.

British performance tradition suggests that this symphony sounds best when taken at a stately pace. Grandeur and glory certainly work, as proved by conductors including Boult, Barbirolli, and two of my favourites in this symphony, Sir Edward Downes and Vernon Handley. But is this what Elgar had in mind? On the evidence of this recording, no. Elgar's tempi in each of the four movements, and in particular in the first and last movements, are swifter than expected. Overall he shaves 8-10 minutes off the average performance time for this symphony. For all the energy and drive of the swaggering first movement, the daemonic third and the unbuttoned finale, the second movement is touched by melancholy. Everywhere there is energy and enthusiasm. There is more zip and snap to this performance than you will find anywhere else. This is not merely a matter of tempi. Nowhere does this performance feel hard driven. Instead, under Elgar's baton, you have a clear-eyed, unsentimental reading of a majestic score that is affecting simply because it does not try to be.

Only two modern interpreters come close to matching Elgar in forward momentum and excitement in this symphony. They are Sir Georg Solti, whose recording with the London Philharmonic on Decca is probably the most exciting of modern accounts, and Sir Yehudi Menuhin, whose recordings of the symphonies (Virgin 7243 5 61430 2 9) are real sleepers - relatively unheralded, but fantastically energetic.

Both modern rivals win in the sonic stakes and orchestral execution. The London Symphony Orchestra under Elgar is fallible. The brass and strings cannot always keep up with Elgar's baton and there is an exposed trumpet gaff towards the end of the first movement, and the occasional cracked note from the horns. Nonetheless, there is plenty to savour in their playing, including some wonderfully soupy portamento.

The recording of the second symphony was made in a single day, April Fool's Day 1927, in a blur of industry. The beginning of the third movement was re-recorded in July of the same year to get rid of a tapping sound that was worrying Fred Gaisberg. Naxos has included the 1 April take of the beginning of the Rondo as a pendant to the symphony, and it makes for an interesting comparison. I seem to remember that my 1970s Elgar conducts Elgar HMV LP, which currently languishes in a box in the garage, included alongside this alternative take a brief rehearsal extract on which Elgar's voice is just audible. It would have been nice to have that snapshot here too, but you can hardly complain that Naxos is ungenerous in its coupling.

Filling out the disc is Beatrice Harrison's pioneering recording of Elgar's cello concerto, again under the composer's baton, but this time accompanied by the New Symphony Orchestra (the London Symphony or London Philharmonic in a different guise?). Harrison is no Casals or Du Pré, and although she plays with feeling, she has been bettered many times over in technique by cellists who followed. She does not project a big tone in her first statement of the flowing theme of the first movement, and her playing lacks something in colour and nuance. Occasionally her tuning also goes awry. Nor is the orchestral playing always tidy. Still, there is plenty of delightful detail, especially from he winds – including the contrabassoon that, though not in Elgar's score, was included to enhance the bass registers. Again, though the performance hardly feels quick, Elgar's reading is taut and the recording takes a mere 25 minutes, rather than the half hour that is now common. There is still some wallowing in the adagio, but precious little anywhere else.

Sound engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has cleaned up the original source material with obvious care, and the results are impressive. Of course, the 1920s sound is far from perfect, the dynamic range is constricted and the bass registers thin, but the transfers are honest and so is the music-making. Ian Julier's erudite liner-notes complete an attractive reissue.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2007

For many years there was speculation that the fast tempos used by Edward Elgar when conducting his own music were controlled with the need to find acceptable points with which to end the sides of the original shellac discs. Detailed evaluation of all his recordings show that some bursts of speed were on sides where there was ample space to accommodate more spacious tempos. This version of the Second Symphony was made to coincide with the innovation of electrical recording technology and came only eighteen months after the previous acoustic set had been released. The improvement completely changed the amount of internal detail that was possible. Yet the significant parts of the performance were the speed and shape of each movement; the very free approach to dynamic markings, and the lack of nostalgia for times past which we now look for in today's performances. The issue does use a remake of a part of the Rondo that was never released at the time, the original version also included here. Though Beatrice Harrison did not give the first performance of the Cello Concerto, the premiere with Felix Salmond had not been a rewarding experience for the composer, and he turned to the young Harrison for the first recording. She later recorded it with new technology in 1928, and it is that version used here. It was a lightweight account compared with today's performances, fleet in tempos, Elgar giving her considerable latitude in shaping phrases. There are a few technical blips in the performance, but without the help of editing the intonation is very good. The sound has its dim moments, but again the Naxos people have given us the best transfer of both works we have had.

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