, July 2007
Back in 2002, Naxos bundled together a very handy 5 CD box of Elgar's orchestral music, which Rob Barnett praised in these pages. Now, in the composer's sesquicentenary year, Naxos is offering this slimmer commemorative box set of just the symphonies. Both of them? All three. The individual discs appear exactly as they do when purchased separately, with the three standard jewel cases housed in a cardboard slipcase that features a wistful looking Elgar behind his trademark moustache. All three performances are highly recommendable.
George Hurst gets proceedings started with a sprightly rendition of the Imperial March, not quite as pacy as Menuhin's traversal, but with plenty of pluck. The recording of the First Symphony that follows is better still. Although a Boult or Barbirolli approach might be expected from a conductor of Hurst's pedigree and vintage, there is plenty of forward momentum and excitement in his performance at tempi that come close to Elgar's own. There is a fine nobilmente to the opening tune, and triumph in its return amid the fireworks at the symphony's close. The scherzo is sprightly and the adagio flows. It is a straightforward performance, but none the worse for that. If in the final analysis Hurst's is not as distinctive an account and Handley's on Classics for Pleasure, Previn's swaggering recording on Philips or Solti's propulsive reading on Decca – though Hurst comes close to Solti – it is still well worth hearing and an excellent recommendation for new initiates. The BBC Philharmonic is in fine form throughout.
Sir Edward Downes' recording of the Second Symphony has always been one of my favourites. His pacing is superb, bringing a Barbirolli-like breadth and affection to the first movement and a finale of rare coherence. In fact, Downes is at his most impressive in this final movement, which can so often lose tension and become slack so that by the time you reach the final afterglow you have lost sight of the movement's structure. Not so here. Downes makes each climax count and shapes the opening tune of the finale with a swagger that prepares you for the main theme in all of its rising optimism. If there is a weak spot in this performance, it is that the rondo is a little lightweight, and lacks the punch that a Solti or Handley brings to it. Solti's performance remains the closest to the composer's own in propulsive pace, with Menuhin's not far behind. Handley's account is also superb. However, Downes' recording is just as satisfying in its own way and deserves a place in every Elgarian's collection. The BBC Philharmonic plays just as well for Downes as it did for Hurst a year earlier, though the perspective of the recording is a little distant this time around.
It is a little odd to include Anthony Payne's elaboration of Elgar's sketches for his Third Symphony as if it was fully one of Elgar's. It has become common to include Mahler's 10th with his complete symphonies, but to do the same here is something altogether different. While Mahler's symphony was all but complete in short score and already partially orchestrated, Elgar's scraps were much less fully developed at the time of his death in 1934. The story of how Payne came to develop Elgar's sketches into a full symphony, drawing on other scraps for the light and balletic scherzo and composing much of the finale and slow movement himself in Elgar's idiom, is now well known. If you don't know it, you can read all about it in Robin Golding's detailed liner-notes. While it is hard to be anything but complimentary about Payne's efforts and the final product stands up well enough as a symphony in its own right, I am not fully convinced that it should be treated as a symphony of Elgar's. Nonetheless, it remains compulsory listening for those who love Elgar's music for those lovely scraps of Elgarian inspiration like the lilting second subject of the first movement, that linger in the memory and could not have been written by anyone else.
There may be uncertainties about whether the third can really be classed as an Elgar symphony. There are no uncertainties about Paul Daniel's performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They make the best case for the symphony that I have heard, certainly superior to the premiere recording made by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Daniel's feel for Elgarian rubato is natural and unaffected and he inspires the orchestra to great things. The BSO is a plucky band, and when a Berglund, a Rattle (that pioneering Mahler 10!) or, in Elgar, a Silvestri is on the podium, they play for dear life. Their commitment and verve more than compensating for any lack of sumptuousness in the strings. In their hands, the salt spray swing of the first movement comes off very well, and the slow movement has a forward momentum and sense of mystery that is quite winning. Even the finale is impressive, and only the scherzo fails to convince entirely, more a function of the material than of the performance.
If you want all three of these symphonies – Elgar's two and the one by Payne using Elgar's material – this is probably the easiest and cheapest way to get them in performances that will wear well. Naxos' box is not unchallenged. In Britain it has to contend with Sir Colin Davis' cycle of the three works on the LSO Live label at the same price point (here in Australia, the LSO set costs considerably more than the Naxos box). I have not heard Davis' rendition of the Elgar/Payne third, but I prefer Hurst and Downes over Davis in symphonies 1 and 2. While some critics have found Davis' readings revelatory, I find their stop-start nature and Davis' tendency to obsess over details distracting, whereas the Naxos accounts are delightfully free from mannerism and ideal for repeat listening. The Naxos discs also have a more natural soundscape, though as noted above you will need to turn the volume up for the second symphony, and none of them suffer from the distracting vocalising from the podium that mars the Davis accounts. Add in Keith Anderson's helpful liner notes for symphonies 1 and 2 and Robin Golding's for number 3, and you have an attractive package indeed.