Elgar sym1 CDHLL7500

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2003 and the recording is still available.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Symphony No 1 in A flat major, Op. 55 (1907-8)
In The South (‘Alassio’), Op. 50 (1903-4)
In Moonlight (‘Canto Popolare’) (1904)
Christine Price (mezzo-soprano)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor & piano)
rec. 2001/2, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Hallé CDHLL7500 [76]

This is one of the first three releases on the Hallé Orchestra’s own label. The choice of repertoire could scarcely be more appropriate since the orchestra has had a long and distinguished association with Elgar’s music, most especially during the days when it was conducted by Hans Richter and by Sir John Barbirolli (the work of JB’s underrated successor, James Loughran should not be overlooked, either.) Furthermore, it was the Hallé that gave the premieres of both orchestral works included here. Mark Elder became their Music Director in 2000 and this CD offers a chance to assess how their relationship has developed and the extent to which the Hallé’s Elgar tradition is safe in Elder’s hands.

The performance of the symphony is one which is particularly marked by attention to detail. My listening notes are dotted with instances where Elder skilfully draws out a small detail of scoring. In this I think he is greatly assisted by his most welcome decision to divide his violins to left and right (though, oddly enough, I felt that the benefits of this were even more marked in In the South.) It is a particular feature of this recording that quiet playing is finely detailed and characterful.

That said, I felt that the performance itself took a little while to warm up. The opening motto theme is nicely delivered but the main allegro doesn’t quite surge forward as does Barbirolli’s 1956 studio reading (also with the Hallé, of course) now happily restored to circulation on Dutton CDJSB 1017. The same sense of the music catching fire is also much in evidence in Barbirolli’s live 1970 account, his last-ever performance of this work, recently issued on BBC Legends. Later on in the first movement, in the exciting build up commencing at figure 26 Barbirolli in 1956 is positively visceral in the excitement (without hysteria) which he generates. By contrast Elder and today’s Hallé sound softer-grained, dare I say a touch tame? 

Elder does the great climax from figure 44 very nobly. Though I was even more stirred by the intensity achieved here by Barbirolli I must say I was very impressed with the results which Elder delivers. Indeed, from here on I felt the performance really started to come fully to life.

The scherzo is played with admirable panache. The lighter second subject from figure 66 has finesse and the harps “tell” very positively hereabouts. If I have a criticism it’s that at the end of the movement, from figure 89 onwards, Elder applies the brakes just a little too much as the music winds down miraculously into the adagio.

The noble adagio glows beautifully. We hear some really distinguished playing, in particular from the Hallé’s wind principals and from leader, Lyn Fletcher. The return of the movement’s main theme at figure 100 is breathtakingly hushed. The rapt coda is just as fine, just as songful; here the Hallé strings play with an eloquence at which JB himself would surely have nodded in approval.

The pregnant introduction to the finale is full of atmosphere and then the music of the main allegro bounds forth in a way that wasn’t quite achieved in the corresponding passage in the first movement. Here, by comparison, Barbirolli is actually a bit steadier and I admire Elder’s greater daring. It is, perhaps a sign of Elder’s urgency that he reaches figure 130 in 6’32″, nearly a minute less than Barbirolli. The ardently lyrical passage following this cue is one of the emotional peaks in the whole score. Elder plays this luminous cantabile section with eloquence and real dignity. Sensibly, he ensures that the music doesn’t peak too soon but the marvellous addition of the horns crowns the music, as it should. (I must say, however, that Barbirolli’s open-hearted candour here is hard to resist and his horns create, if anything, an even greater frisson.)

From figure 143 when the run in to the final apotheosis is launched by the horns (how Elgar loved that instrument, and how well he wrote for it!), all is brilliance and opulent pageantry. The ending is glorious. And yet, and yet … is the final triumph just a bit too easily attained? Listen to Barbirolli and you may think so. In his recording the high wind and string figures slashing down through the orchestral texture after figure 146 are something much more than decoration. Are not these “swirls” attempting to derail the triumphant peroration of the motto theme? Elgar was, after all, a composer of great ambivalence.

So, Elder’s way with this score is not the only way (nor is Barbirolli’s!). However, it is a pretty impressive achievement and on this evidence I would say that that he will indeed be an excellent guardian (and developer) of the orchestra’s Elgar tradition.

This impression is more than confirmed by his reading of In the South. This, for me, is one of Elgar’s very finest works. It is also his most Straussian, not least in the use of the horns. I think that up to now there have been two benchmark recordings of this score. For many years Constantin Silvestri’s incandescent 1967 account with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI) easily held sway. Then BBC Legends issued Barbirolli’s magnificent, generous 1970 live performance with his beloved Hallé (BBCL 4013-2). Now Elder’s new account must join these two recordings in the pantheon of great Elgar recordings.

From the very start the reading takes wing. The opening is surging, confident, impetuous and red blooded. I commented earlier on Elgar’s affinity with the horns. If I were to nitpick I’d say that I like more of a “thwack” from the bass drum in the Roman legions episode than we hear here. However, this passage still has plenty of brazen power. I mustn’t give the impression that this is a reading which is merely strong in the extrovert passages. The more sensitive parts of the piece come off just as well. The ‘canto popolare’ section is excellent. Timothy Pooley, the principal violist is rightly credited for his fine solo but the unnamed horn player is just as eloquent and the filigree accompaniment from the orchestra is also most distinguished. The final pages are tremendous, right from the moment when the violins steal in. From here on the conviction of the performance sweeps all before it as the brass remorselessly build up the glorious, sun-drenched soundscape. This is as fine an account of In the South as I hope to hear – or expect to.

As an interesting and charming bonus Christine Rice sings the song which Elgar fashioned from the ‘canto popolare’ music a few months after the premiere of In the South. The text is by Shelley and though the words are not printed Miss Rice’s diction is sufficiently clear for this not to be a problem, at least for English speaking listeners.

The accompanying notes (in English, French and German) are as well written and informative as one would expect from the pen of Michael Kennedy. The recorded sound is very good throughout.

This CD is an auspicious start to the Hallé’s new label, a venture which deserves to enjoy great success. These studio recordings are very successful but I hope that future issues will see them emulating the LSO by issuing recordings of live performances. I enjoyed this CD very much and I hope it presages more Elgar from this partnership.

John Quinn

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