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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

CD REVIEWS | Two Elgar Symphonies: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko; Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim

By Paul E. Robinson on March 14, 2015

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Elgar: Symphony No. 2 in E flat major Op. 63. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim. Decca 478 6677. (Total Time: 56:01)

Elgar is practically part of the DNA of a certain group of Canadian classical music lovers; it goes with their Anglo-Saxon heritage and recognition of the Queen of England as their sovereign. For many classical music lovers in the United States and beyond, it is a different matter. Elgar’s music, while regularly programmed by British orchestras, was never widely performed or appreciated in the USA or Europe in the past and that is still the case today.

Daniel Barenboim has long admired Elgar’s music. Perhaps his love of Elgar dates from his time with British cellist Jacqueline du Pré (friend, and later, spouse), a time when they often played the Elgar Cello Concerto together. During this period, Barenboim conducted performances of the Elgar symphonies and Falstaff, among other works and made recordings of them with the London Philharmonic. This new Decca recording, in which he revisits those pieces with his German orchestra includes the finest performance of the Second Symphony I have heard in years. Barenboim clearly loves the piece and finds a depth of expression that has eluded most other conductors. The Staatskapelle Berlin plays Elgar as if they had played it all their lives. Decca’s recording is superb with unusually rich sound from the lower depths of the orchestra.

There are other excellent recordings of Elgar’s Second Symphony, but none since Barbirolli’s plumbs the depths like Barenboim’s. Barenboim has often expressed his admiration for Furtwängler and the great German conductor does come to mind in listening to this new recording. Furtwängler did not hesitate to change tempi if he thought the music required it, no matter what the composer’s instructions in the score. We hear the same approach in Barenboim’s Elgar and in the case of this new version of the Second Symphony, the conductor’s tempo choices are nearly always convincing. A case in point occurs at rehearsal number 11 in the score where Elgar gives a metronome marking which Barenboim chooses to play much slower. At Barenboim’s tempo, the cello melody is heartbreaking. Of course, it helps that the Staatskapelle Berlin’s cellos play the passage so beautifully. It is obvious that Elgar wanted something special here. In addition to the metronome marking, he wrote “dolce e delicato” and “espressivo”. Barenboim’s reading of this passage is just one example of how carefully he has studied the score to come up with interpretative decisions that make sense.

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Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A flat major. Cockaigne Overture. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko. Onyx 4145. (Total Time: 63.19).

I first heard this recording on the radio without knowing the identity of either the orchestra or the conductor. I was so impressed with the performance that I had to stop the car to listen to the whole thing. When I got my own copy, I listened twice more before writing this review. The third time through, the performance remained as compelling as the first time.

Vasily Petrenko has been having great success as music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The orchestra’s Shostakovich symphony cycle for Naxos ranks among the best available. Petrenko comes at Elgar with the same intensity he brings to Shostakovich, which makes for a bracing account of the Cockaigne Overture. Tempi are faster than the norm, but the music can take it. The performance of the Symphony No. 1 is also very good, although not on the sublime level of Barenboim’s reading of the Symphony No. 2. The Onyx recording quality does not approach that of the Decca recording and Petrenko is less yielding than Barenboim in the quieter passages. In the big moments too, one misses the passion of say, Barbirolli. And in the last movement I have the sense that Petrenko is pushing the tempo too hard. The conductor’s frenetic tempo, especially in the coda, doesn’t allow time for Elgar’s dynamic markings to make their full effect. In the final pages, trumpets are held back when they should burst forward in the glorious peroration.

Sir Edward Elgar might have presented himself to the public as the very model of a restrained, retired army colonel, but beneath that façade lived a man of great sensitivity and depth of feeling. It’s all in the music, if one takes the trouble to look for it. Barenboim finds the very soul of the music; Petrenko not so much.

For the record…

While it is true that Elgar’s music is more popular in Britain than elsewhere and conducted most often by British conductors, over the years some notable non-British conductors have been attracted to his music. Among the conductors who have made recordings of one or both of Elgar’s symphonies are Solti, Zinman, Slatkin, and Sinopoli, and most recently Finnish conductor, Sakari Oramo.

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Ludwig Van Toronto

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