I knew that as soon as The Prodigal Son returned, at least in Elgarian terms, the Brit press would be gaga over the spoils. Daniel Barenboim, the Son, had a love affair with Elgar symphonies along with the excellent LPO, and the less excellent CBS, as recorder, back in the 70s and 80s. The press loved everything, even the recording quality. The recorded sound was awful. If you collect Columbia vinyl recordings of the time, especially from London and New York, you’ll know what I mean.
To be fair to Barenboim, he has always been an interesting, intelligent musician, even more so now the raw conducting talent has matured. The CBS performances of the two Elgar symphonies were powerful and exciting, with much of the excellence lost in the recorded murk. Forty years later, Barenboim returns to the symphonies with a better orchestra and with much better recording quality (Decca — from live recordings at Berlin’s Philharmonie).
Every once in a while from Barenboim (Tchaikovsky 4 and La Mer in Chicago, lots of Wagner) you’ll hear a turn of phrase that really captures your ear. Phrases that are to many ears old hat. But great musicians allow you to hear anew. Barenboim is a champ at that. You’ll always get uniformly good orchestral playing but in this recording of Elgar 1, there are lots of those magical moments. Many of them helped in no small way by Elgar’s exquisite orchestration. Listen to the coda of the Adagio. I’ve never heard it played quite so beautifully. Or the speed and articulation of the Scherzo. Here, the uber Germanic Staatskapelle Berlin are superb.
The long first movement, one of Elgar’s greatest creations, is stately and then fiery and dramatic. Barenboim gives you the full monty. Elgar at his most inspired.
The recording is Decca at its very best. All the orchestration is heard and the quality and sound of the bass drum will have you checking to see if Keith Johnson had something to do with the sessions.
Yes, all the press has been gushing over this and the 2nd Symphony from 2014. Sometimes gushing is good. Highly recommended.