Elgar Symphony No. 1, Falstaff
It’s good to see such a treasure trove from EMI’s magnificent Elgar Edition appearing at mid-price within its uncommonly enterprising (and, happily, still thriving) British Composers label. Let’s hope that, like Naxos’s best-selling transfer of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Menuhin and the composer (A/99), the enticing drop in price tempts newcomers to dip their toes into previously uncharted waters.
The blockbuster coupling here (clocking in at nearly 80 minutes to boot) has to be that of the First Symphony and Falstaff, both of which receive readings that leave you gasping in wonder at the astonishing vitality, entrancing poetry and (above all) daring flexibility of Elgar’s conducting. Certainly, this is a Falstaff brimful of humanity, irresistible narrative flair and (at the close) heart-rending poignancy. As for the symphony, I can’t recall a more wistful treatment of the Scherzo’s enchanting trio section (‘play it like something you hear down by the river,’ Elgar used to say), while the work’s thrilling closing pages have surely never resounded with greater cumulative swagger.
Similarly, the composer’s 1927 version of the Second Symphony enshrines another inspirational display, its huge expressive fervour and blistering intensity shining like a beacon across the decades. First-timers should listen out for the generous use of portamento, to say nothing of the staggering reserves of sostenuto tone Elgar draws from the LSO strings (hardly a top-ranking group at the time). Recorded over just one day, this rapt performance was rush-released in time for Elgar’s 70th birthday on June 2. Six weeks later, Elgar re-made the first side of the Rondo third movement (producer Fred Gaisberg having in the meantime noticed ‘foreign noises’ in the original take), and it was from those July 1927 sessions that the tantalising five-minute rehearsal sequence derives (the unique shellac pressing of which Elgar was extremely fond of playing to visitors at his home).
The third disc kicks off with a rivetingly characterful Froissart from February 1933 (with Elgar at the helm of Beecham’s formidable, recently formed LPO), followed by an astoundingly charismatic Cockaigne with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (Elgar’s very first recording for the electric microphone, set down in April 1926). Exhilarating is the only word to describe the 1930 account of In the South with the LSO, the music’s thrusting grandeur and intimacy of feeling seamlessly integrated into a searingly cogent whole. We also get an agreeably bluff, aptly rustic rendering of the two ‘Dream Interludes’ from Falstaff, and the anthology concludes with Beatrice Harrison’s big-hearted, wonderfully touching 1928 performance of the Cello Concerto.
The First Symphony’s scherzo still sounds pretty uncongenial to my ears (though at least someone at EMI has taken the opportunity to tidy up that horrendous side-join at 4'20'' that defaced its full-price predecessor). Otherwise, the sound is often remarkably vivid, with a commendable truthfulness of timbre on the third disc not quite matched by the first two (containing the symphonies and Falstaff). Can we now look forward to the reappearance of yet more absorbing historical documents on EMI British Composers, I wonder?'