Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A flat major Op. 55. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim. Decca 478 9353. Total time: 51.26.
From Sir Ernest Macmillan’s leadership of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1931-1956) through that of Sir Andrew Davis (1975-1988) – the Elgar symphonies enjoyed a place of prominence in the repertoire of the TSO, and deservedly so. These are some of the greatest symphonies in the entire repertoire of classical music. In recent years, however, Elgar’s special status seems to have slipped, not only in Toronto, but also in Montreal. Major Elgar is rarely programed nowadays by either the Toronto Symphony or by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, whose maestro Kent Nagano has never shown any interest in his music.
Throughout his career, Maestro Daniel Barenboim has championed Elgar’s music, beginning with the famous recording of the Cello Concerto with his wife, Jacqueline du Pré. He went on to record the Elgar symphonies with the London Philharmonic and in the past few years, he has returned to them with his current orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin. Primarily an opera orchestra, under Barenboim the Staatskapelle Berlin has emerged as a serious rival to the Berlin Philharmonic.
Barenboim had been recording primarily Mahler and Bruckner with this orchestra, but then in 2014 came a recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, an extraordinarily probing reading with attention paid to every detail in the score and an overall grasp of the structure, the orchestra playing with an exceptional range of expression and the Decca engineers providing exemplary sound quality.
Two years later, we have an equally fine recording of the Symphony No. 1. The work was first performed in 1908, contemporary with Richard Strauss’ Elektra and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. Although by no means as forward-looking as these pieces, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, based on a motto theme – Elgar called it “noble and simple” – that reappears throughout the work and is given an especially grandiose treatment at the very end, was every bit as masterful. There is no program attached to this symphony, but many observers have identified this theme with British royalty and the great days of the British Empire, perhaps because of the composer’s liking for patriotic-sounding tunes, such as in the “Land of Hope and Glory” middle section of the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.
The point is that in Symphony No. 1, Elgar’s big tune is put through the most astonishing metamorphoses, touching on a whole range of emotion, including patriotism. Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 has a unique power to move us in passage after passage. In the end, all we can say is that the composer has created something uncommonly beautiful. So too have conductor Daniel Barenboim and his musicians in this recording.
Barenboim first recorded the Elgar No. 1 in 1973 with the London Philharmonic. In this new version with the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra is better; the sound is superior, and Barenboim reveals the depth of the piece without impeding the flow of the music.
For something more…
Barenboim and Martha Argerich have collaborated again, following up their sensational recording of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (DG 479 3922) with an electrifying Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (DG 479 5563).
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