ELGAR Symphony No 1; Sea Pictures – Handley
Andrew Davis’s new recordings of the Elgar symphonies along with the early Froissart Overture were recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2007, the year the Royal Festival Hall was being refurbished. The first gain is that the sound has more bloom on it than it would have had in the dry larger hall. Even more important, the comparison with Davis’s earlier recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, made in the studio and now reissued at super-budget price on Warner Apex, is that, as so often with Davis, a live occasion brings out an extra intensity. For example, the pause before the final rush of the coda in the first movement of the Second Symphony is significantly longer, making a greater impact.
Generally, in both symphonies Davis allows himself greater freedom in his use of rubato, phrasing warmly, so that the lovely third theme of the slow movement in the First Symphony is even more tender, and though the playing in both symphonies is marginally less polished in the live performance, the Elgarian thrust is greater and the sound fuller and more immediate. Also, the final coda of the finale in the First Symphony is even more thrilling, though all these differences are only marginal. The Froissart Overture, dating from early in Elgar’s career, is also richly done.
In the First Symphony Vernon Handley’s live version on the LPO’s own label – originally issued in an Elgar box and now reissued as a separate disc, coupled with Dame Janet Baker’s superb account of Sea Pictures – comes in surprisingly warm sound. Handley, an equally fine, idiomatic Elgarian, gives a reading just as rich and moving, with timings surprisingly similar to those of Davis. The Scherzo is particularly clean and well sprung. Those who just want the First Symphony may even prefer it to the Davis performances because of the coupling. In effect collectors can hardly go wrong with either of these recordings, both offering marvellous evidence of Elgar’s mastery.