Streaming the Classics 5/Elgar: Symphony No. 1

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Do you ever type a streaming query in Roon for a classical work and are overwhelmed by the choices? Rather than clicking on any old recording or the first one you see, Audiophilia will make things a little easier for you and do the heavy listening.

These choices are for streaming only. Is the best in streaming also the best vinyl recording and performance? That’s for another article.

A few criteria:

  1. Recording must be on either Qobuz and/or Tidal HiFi.

  2. It does not have to be HiRes or MQA.

  3. No more than ten recommendations in no particular order, then my top three for streaming in order of preference.

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With more than sixteen versions available to download of this most English of symphonies, the choice is bewildering to say the least. Elgar himself recorded this symphony in 1931 in one of the first electrical recordings with the LSO and that orchestra has gone on to record it under many different conductors in the last 80 years.

So, here are the ten versions to investigate.

  1. Boult

  2. Barbirolli

  3. Elgar

  4. Mackerras

  5. Davis

  6. Elder

  7. Barenboim

  8. Petrenko

  9. Previn

  10. Solti

Sir Adrian Boult recorded this work on a number of occasions, but it's his later EMI version with the LPO that gives you his best interpretation—after all, he conducted this work for over sixty years in the concert hall [I saw him do it live with the LSO at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980; the only standing ovation I ever saw in London as the 91 year old walked on the stage—Ed].

Barbirolli was always a favourite of the elderly composer and he never let Elgar down. His performance with the Philharmonia is a fine reading .

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Both Boult and Barbirolli give measured but fiery readings which tend to be on the slower end of the spectrum but Solti studied Elgar's own recording and speeds for the symphony and he delivers very vivid playing from the LPO in very good early 70s sound from Decca.

Mackerras is a conductor who I think was undervalued during his lifetime; his reading of the symphony with the LSO is full of energy and life and he handles the shape and form of the music excellently.

Andrew Davis made some good recordings with the BBC Symphony which have been re-released, his handling of the slow movement is superb but he loses energy a little in the outer movements.

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Mark Elder continues to uphold the English tradition with the Hallé Orchestra that premiered this work in Manchester under Richter—he claimed the slow movement was the true successor to Beethoven's slow movements. Elder's reading is very similar to Boult in many respects but slightly brisker in tempo.

Barenboim has received many plaudits for his Elgar but for me he doesn't set the piece on fire as much as I would like to hear. The playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle offers a different perspective on Elgar's orchestral sonorities.

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Vasily Petrenko is another conductor who has struck his mark on English music and his performance with the RLPO is one of the finest I've heard on disc. The orchestral playing and the detail and texture of the music comes over in a very impressive way.

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Previn was always a fine exponent of the English repertoire and he drives the RPO with great authority and paces the shape of the symphony well.

Finally we come to Sir Edward himself who recorded the symphony in Abbey Road in 1931 with the LSO which was the orchestra he had been principal conductor in 1904.

Elgar conducts a no nonsense reading which moves along with great ebb and swell and his slow movement is as fine as any other version. The sound is acceptable for the period and this version is a must in every music collection if you love Elgar.

So which three would I choose out of this very strong field?

  1. Boult

  2. Solti

  3. Petrenko

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Boult still holds the field in style for this music but Solti for me offers the most characterised and energetic but still noble performance .

Petrenko has impressed me with this very fine and detailed reading and with state of the art recording allows this great symphony to heard in the best contemporary sound.