Symphonies 1 & 2 Import
Elgar's two symphonies have a special place in English musical history. When they were first played they towered head and shoulders--in sheer technique, let alone content--above previous symphonic offerings by British composers. Today when we have the magnificent symphonies of Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bax, Rubbra, Britten, and others to set beside them, they still stand apart, having already achieved the status of classics. Their mastery may have been equaled, but it has not been surpassed.
The most spectacular evidence is found in the First Symphony, which is one of the glories of the world. Regarding Symphony #2, Boult holds together the horn motto in the second movement better than anyone else, but I have to admit that Haitink reaches a spiritual transcendence beyond any others-- strange, because his reading seems to be under the radar.
Prior to Elgar developing the new national style through his noble and romantic scores that used his unique nobilmente marking you find in the first movement of both symphonies, England went a century without a world class composer. Before Elgar arrived on the world stage, one has to go back to Henry Purcell (1659-95) and Thomas Arne (1710-78) to find an English composer of world status.
Once Elgar began to develop the new, more romantically charged style in the Edwardian era, a boatload of followers came afterward writing world class compositions. These included Gerald Finzi (1901-56), Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953), Herbert Howells (1892-1983), William Walton (1902-83) and Sir Michael Tippett (1905-98). Others of the era that blossomed in Elgar's lifetime that followed a different path included Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) whose chief influence was folk music, Gustav Holst (1874-1934) who had an abiding interest in Eastern music, and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), whose collaborations with H.S. Gilbert resulted in opera for the people.
So it was that Elgar became the new champion of English music, and in doing so destroying the myth that all Englishmen were gentlemen in terms of emotional content. The two symphonies here, along with his pomp and circumstance marches, cello and violin concertos, and oratorio The Dream of Geronitus helped create the new English style.
The two symphonies came to light along somewhat different paths. The Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55 was composed 1907-8 and was premiered in December 1908 in Manchester to acclaim. It was very popular with audiences immediately and was performed more than 100 times in its first year. With no program and no composer dedication, some suggest it represents an English "eroica" symphony that parallels Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. It begins with a lengthy nobilmente theme that is cyclic through the movements and closes the work almost 50 minutes later.
The Symphony No. 2, composed 1910-11 and premiered May 1911 in London, did not arrive with the same adulation. A more oblique composition dedicated to the memory of the late King Edward VII, Elgar was surprised and displeased with the public acceptance. Stories are legion that he rhetorically asked why people didn't come to hear it and, about those who did, why they sat like "stuffed pigs" during its playing. Many call this Elgar's most autobiographical composition, suggesting its Edwardian slant beging representative of the composer's life, intent and purpose.
Here, the two symphonies are performed by one of England's greatest conductors, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) whose life and times mirrored Elgar's and who was an exponent of the composer's music during both their lives. Boult conducted the Elgar symphonies often and his first recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, his partner here, was of Elgar's Falstaff Elgar: Falstaff; Enigma Variations. Together, Boult and Elgar were likely the best match to recreate the nobly romantic music the composer envisaged for the nation.
In these recordings, Boult adopts a central but noble approach between the faster recordings by the composer, Georg Solti and Anthony Collins and the slower John Barbirolli, whose recordings focus more on emotion and opulence. Boult projects more of the composer's nobilmente characteristic while Barbirolli is a more passionate advocate who tries to find greater opulence in the music. These are livelier and better recorded than Boult's later EMI recordings. They also come in a slimline case with notes and no add-ons.
The recordings are from 1968; they were first recorded on high quality LPs by Lyrita, which in those days was then an emerging audiophile label that promoted English music and composers. They were recreated on CD in 2007 to widespread world acclaim for their warm, creamy sound. While Boult again recorded the two symphonies for EMI in the penultimate year of his life these recordings have a special place for Elgarians and lovers of English music even though Elgar's music is never as straightforward as the average German romantic.
The two giants of the English podium (Boult and Barbirolli) maintain their positions today in light of challenges from newer generations of conductors including the current godfather of English conductors, Colin Davis. Davis has recorded all the Elgar symphonies in recent years on the LSO Live label on No. 1 ,No. 2 and No. 3 sketches elaborated by Anthony Payne. They have been universally accepted by both music buyers and critics.
Any of these recordings gives the listener a fine introduction into the world of Elgar's national music. However, the Lyrita recordings under Boult have maintained a safe place in the world of Elgar worship that is not likely to be superceded by any new conductor, orchestra or style, mostly because they represent such a fine kinship of collaboration, playing and idiomatic response to the composer's ideas.
Today, you can find super audio recordings of Elgar symphonies No. 1,No. 2 and newer sets in better digital sound Symphonies #1 & 2 but you cannot find better work from Boult. This set is a treasure anyone that enjoys Elgar should hear while they are on the planet.
As regards the performances themselves, what is striking is not so much the difference in timings per movement, but more the similarities. Taking the first symphony the timings are for Lyrita: 18.28; 7.14; 10.27; 12.24 and EMI: 18.33; 7.14; 10.53; 12.01. For the second symphony the timings for Lyrita are: 16.31; 13.17; 8.26; 12.58 and the EMI timings are: 17.29; 14.13; 8.00; 13.15. In general we can see that the two recordings of the first symphony are very similar with the second symphony being generally slower in the EMI version.
However, total timings are only a broad observation. What is very apparent are the differences within each movement and this is where those who maintain that the earlier set is more vibrant really have a case. Essentially Boult extracts greater impact from his orchestra in nearly all the quicker sections of both symphonies so that the effect is one of more drama and more forward momentum. This is more to do with short span rather than sustained differences in basic tempi. However, it is also a valid observation that in the EMI set the slower sections of both symphonies arguably have an extra weight and breadth giving an enhanced sense of nobility and the epic. This is helped by the warmer and deeper sound-stage of the later EMI recording.
Overall I am pleased to own both sets and will certainly not be deleting my EMI set in favour of my newly acquired Lyrita set. What comes over to me is that Boult has very special things to say about both symphonies and expressed these core ideas with different emphasis in the two recordings which nevertheless share the same basic interpretive concept.
I would suggest that collectors will want to own both sets and will be suitably rewarded for their financial outlay by additional musical illumination and satisfaction. Others interested in a single set can safely choose either and those who already own one or other of the sets can rest easy. However, for those purchasers looking for a single set of Boult interpretations, my suggestion is that the Lyrita set has the edge - just.