I think it’s in every Englishman’s DNA that the gene ‘Must love Elgar’ exists. I have it, but as an identical twin, it was halved and diluted at birth. Therefore, I love Elgar’s Violin Concerto, In The South, and the 1st Symphony. Froissart, the Cello Concerto and his oratorios I can do without (ever played The Music Makers?!). The 2nd Symphony is acknowledged not as successful as the 1st Symphony, and, it is a work with which I have a love/hate relationship. At times, I think it a masterpiece, masterfully orchestrated, with great structure and fantastic tunes. Other times, it simply rubs me the wrong, jingoistic way.
That said, I do love the quote from Shelley that Elgar inscribes on the opening page: ‘Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!’. It is when a conductor follows the ‘spirit’ of these great words that the ‘smile’ and ‘beauty’ of this massive work overcomes its portentousness and pretense. And, my friends, conductor Daniel Barenboim and his great orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, capture the pure essence of them perfectly.
The Shelley delight is there in all four movements. Perfectly judged tempos, superb attention to detail (you’ll hear things that you’ve not heard before — I have an old Novello score, checked, and there they were, clearly marked by Elgar), and as I mentioned in a review of Barenboim’s early Bruckner Symphonies release a few weeks ago, he provides so many truly musical moments. I would say that, on recordings at least, Daniel Barenboim is one of the most interesting conductors working today. And, let’s not forget, he’s also one of the great pianists.
As a recording, the Decca team has captured the amazing sounds and brilliant orchestrations beautifully. It is set in a warm and natural acoustic, but huge detail is heard with specific imaging and a lovely soundstage.
Other than Barenboim’s musicality, the great news is playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle. Elgar adds specific instructions regarding glissandos and other ‘romantic’ effects. Barenboim has the strings of the Staatskapelle playing them well nigh flawlessly, so the effect is there but does not gild the lily (as so many other conductors do). The weight and cohesiveness of the low brass is superb and the woodwind solos are the marques of great artists. And, the horns! A sold block of flawless, in tune musicality.
So, there are umpteen recordings and sad to say I know them all very well. The early Barenboim symphonies on CBS with the LPO are recorded poorly and don’t show the young conductor at his best. Of course, Boult and Barbirolli (more LPO) put their best Brit foot forward and get fine performances. Solti at his most combustible blew through both symphonies with his LPO on Decca (even more LPO) and gets good playing. At least, there’s little time for jingoism. But, this German based product is by far the very finest played on disc. No tentativeness, no weakness in any section, total uniformity in the strings, great timpani and percussion, and ensemble playing that would make many British orchestras wince. I’ve learned from these forces that most orchestras can play the notes (they are very difficult, mind you) but great orchestras with a budget, time and a tradition of excellence can get in between the notes, make the banal sound important, and elevate the lovely into beautiful. And, they get the detail right. I’ve known the LPO (and other British orchestras) to have a three hour session to learn and record a new symphony. Crazy. One reviewer in Gramophone declared one of these recordings ‘definitive’!
I hate to use that word, but with this release I’d be hard pressed not to. Barenboim’s had a lifetime affair with Elgar and there is real thought and growth in his work on this recording. Buy with confidence. And delight.