Elgar’s Symphony No 1 - in Rome, for the first time in 95 years
Saturday, 21 January, Rome
Antonio Pappano - Sir Antonio no less, following the New Year's Honours - climbs the podium, takes a microphone and turns to the audience. He's introducing the work for the second half of a concert with his Accademia di Santa Cecilia, one which began with the Dvorák Cello Concerto (about which I've come here to write for a later issue of Gramophone). He begins by talking about its origins, and then asks the orchestra to play through some of its principal themes, familiarising us, adjusting our ears to the unknown, drawing us in... A challenging piece of new music? One of the more astringent works of the past century? No, Elgar's First Symphony. Tonight is the first time the work has been heard live in Rome since 1917.
I've had a number of conversations with conductors about why Elgar isn’t granted the same attention abroad that, in Britain, we (rightly) grant Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius. They all express a sadness, but cite the reluctance of programmers to take a risk (a risk, on Elgar - could the contrast with Britain be greater!). Indeed, the artistic coordinator of Santa Cecilia, Mauro Bucarelli, while delighted to be presenting the piece, acknowledges to me that tonight's concert 'has not sold out because of Elgar'. (I’ve enquired about other Elgar performances in Rome, and come up with Barbirolli conducting The Dream of Gerontius in 1957, then Part I of it the following year for Pope Pius XII, and Ashkenazy conducting a performance of the same piece more recently. But if any readers know of other examples, please do let me know.)
So bravo to Britain’s newest musical knight for taking the plunge. Elgar composed the Symphony's first movement when in Rome, but I'd hesitate to highlight any Italian influence in it. But I would point to its stirring, emotive, main theme, the poignant beauty of the later Adagio... So would Pappano. ‘I don't get it, I really don't get it!’‚ he cries of Elgar’s relative absence from continental concert halls.
More practically though, he acknowledges that 'it is 54, 55 minutes long, and requires serious rehearsal. There are orchestras that don't read as quickly as others, so the process of getting it to performance level...it's not like you can say' - he clicks his fingers – '"we'll do that"'.
'So part of it is the difficulty of programming it. But then there will always be the cliche, the prejudice about the Edwardian idea of the English, and the Empire and all that stuff.'
Which does indeed persist, a century on, despite the fact that Elgar is more correctly seen as an outsider, a person awkwardly aware of his origins from lower down the social scale, a Catholic in an Anglican Establishment, a reflective man prone to depression...
'Of course!' says Pappano. 'But the pictures portray the moustache, and the tweed, all the trappings of what people think they know about England, and therefore it's dismissed. Part of the problem is the image of Britain at the turn of the century - it's supposed to be stuffy.'
And were the Accademia converted? When I watched the orchestra rehearsing the work at lunchtime, I certainly thought I could detect smiles on a number of faces as they reached certain themes. 'I was very lucky to have a separate strings-only rehearsal'‚ says Pappano, 'so I could explain a few things to them. And what was very interesting was that there was scepticism everywhere of course, but then they got to the slow movement, and all of a sudden they turned the corner, and they understood.'
Something I'd readily concur with following the fine performance in the evening. I'm not sure it felt any less British to me for having heard the magisterial ending fade away minutes from the Tiber – the connotations will always be emotive for a British music lover. But as for the Italian audience, I do believe at least some of them felt they'd just discovered an epic work of affecting humanity – and not a mere musical depiction of tweed.
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.