New York Insider

What’s The Most Neglected Yet Indisputably Great Symphony?

Albert ImperatoMon 28th March 2011
Sir Adrian Boult's Elgar Second – Albert Imperato's favouriteSir Adrian Boult's Elgar Second – Albert Imperato's favourite

Flying the flag for Elgar's Second – Stateside

The first thing I did when Version 2 of medici.TV (a client of our company) went live was to click on Sir Georg Solti’s recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic. It’s available there only by subscription as one of the site’s video-on-demand titles, as opposed to many of the other offerings that can be viewed for free. The reason I went immediately to this performance is simple: in 25 years of concert-going, I’ve only heard this great masterpiece once in a live performance, when Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra performed it during the Bard Music Festival’s presentation of 'Elgar and His World' at Bard SummerScape (this festival is also a client of our company, 21C Media Group). I really adore Elgar’s Second, and I just can’t understand its seeming neglect. 'I think it’s the most neglected yet indisputably great symphony ever written,' I wrote to a colleague after watching the entire Solti performance on line. To which he responded, 'Is Elgar’s Second really a neglected work?'  Good question.

I think it is, but my colleague’s response does underline the basic difficulty of applying the phrase 'neglected masterpiece' to any work. Without doing a lot of research, and an awful lot of math, when do you rightfully call a piece of music neglected? Perhaps even harder, how do you categorize something an indisputably great work, as a true masterpiece? Surely Elgar’s Second, which was premiered almost exactly a century ago – February 1911 to be exact – has been recorded many times, so it’s hardly neglected on that front. And even if it’s only had a handful of performances in NYC over the past half century, does the fact that it’s probably played pretty often in the UK (or is it?) mean by definition that you can’t call it neglected? And while I think that Elgar’s Second is a masterpiece, can I ever prove it to someone who perhaps holds a different opinion?

My email exchange continued and I gave my colleague a capsule summary of why I love Elgar’s Second: 'It’s kind of a hybrid of Brahms and Mahler, tightly argued like the former, deeply personal and highly expressive like the latter. The Larghetto movement is some of the most beautiful 15 minutes of music ever written – it shakes and stirs my soul. And the big climax of the third movement sounds like a squadron of tanks flattening a meadow of flowers – it’s powerful if not outright frightening, something of a premonition. The Brahmsian feeling is strong again in the finale:  like that composer’s Third Symphony, Elgar’s Second ends, after much exertion, with a quiet, sunset-coloured farewell.' And so forth.

Throughout the day I asked people what piece they’d nominate for the title of Most Neglected Indisputably Great Symphony and I got some interesting responses. To my surprise, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler got multiple shout-outs. And Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony got an endorsement from someone whose tastes I greatly admire.  

Poking around on line, and on my CD shelves, a few other nominees arose including Suk’s Asrael Symphony, Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra, Martinu’s Fourth, Walter Piston’s Second, Roy Harris’s Third (besides the classic Bernstein recording, where has this piece been lately?), Vaughan William’s Fifth (another indisputably great British symphony that you rarely see on concert programs here). Any of Szymanowski’s four or Bax’s seven or Rautavaara’s eight would be rightly deemed neglected, but 'indisputable masterpieces?'  

And so, in the hopes of shining light on some more neglected gems – and doubt setting me up for another extensive round of downloads – I open the question to visitors to gramophone.co.uk.

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