Post by Jeremy Dimmick
I think LPO / Handley is a good recommendation for a modern stereo
recording, but frankly it bores me by comparison with the excellent
1954 Barbirolli. I don't think it's by any measure the greatest
symphony of the 20th century, though I do find it more rewarding
than any of the pieces Van Eyes names.
I don't think there's any point is even debating the question of what was the
"greatest" symphony of the 20th century, particularly as it begs the issue of
just how many symphonies of the 20th century the person in question knows so as
to be able to make the comparisons and draw this conclusion in the first place.
Nor do I think this completely arbitrary and unmusical periodicity is at all
applicable to music best judged (for qualitative purposes) on stylistic criteria
rather than lumping it into a pool of disparate works simply by date.
Elgar's Second is a late Romantic work best compared to other late Romantic
works of similar ambition and expressive range; when it was composed is
irrelevant. This point was driven home a few years ago at a particularly vile
concert given by Simon Rattle and the CBSO when he paired Stravinsky's The Rite
of Spring with Elgar's Falstaff merely because they date from around the same
year. It was the musical analog to putting chocolate sauce on liver, and neither
work gained from being placed in close proximity to the other.
That said, I'm largely with Tom on this one, in believing the Elgar to be ONE of
the great symphonies of any period whatever. Among its qualities:
1. The subtle and highly sophisticated use of cyclical form, not merely in the
"spirit of delight" motto theme, but also in the transformation of the "malign
influence" tune from the first movement's development section to the horrifying
juggernaught in the central episode of the third movement. This is long-range
symphonic thought an a very grand scale, flawlessly executed.
2. The second movement strikes me as one of the great symphonic adagios, and its
orchestration (that of the whole symphony in fact) is particularly gorgeous and
3. The finale has none of the problems of movement or form typical of many
Romantic symphonies, and the coda successfully avoids the necessity of a
grandiose peroration but at the same time never sounds anti-climactic. That's
quite an achievement, especially for a quick movement. It is, in this respect,
very similar to the finale of Brahms' Third Symphony, which has that same
"autumnal" glow and feeling of quiet contentment, "all passion spent", though of
course Brahms is as compact as Elgar is expansive.
4. The close of the third movement clearly inspired Bernard Herrmann at the end
of his overture to North by Northwest, and for that alone we should be grateful.
Immitation by another great composer in a surprising context is, after all, the
sincerest form of flattery.
I'd like to note two additional performances not mentioned by Tom and worthy of
notice: Elgar's own electrical recording on EMI, which has some of the best
sound around for it's era, and Mackerras on Argo.
Finally, some observations regarding those who have NOT recorded the symphony
and the comparative neglect of Elgar outside of the UK. Here I think much of the
blame lies squarely with the English press, which I believe has been an
absolutely dreadful custodian of the UK's musical patrimony (and not just in
Elgar). The constant flogging of Boult, Barbirolli, Handley, or if not English
conductors than the absolute necessity of having an English orchestra involved
in any Elgar performance (and in particular recording), and the whole issue of
English "authenticity" or "idiomatic" interpretation in this music have very
successfully, I believe, discouraged "international" orchestras and conductors
from even thinking about making the music their own.
Of course, on the positive side, one might observe that Elgar has NOT been
ill-served at all at home; Boult, Barbirolli and others have done marvelous work
in this music. The issue here is NOT that these are not excellent performances.
They often are. We may in fact well ask the question: What conductor needs to
"take up the cause" when Elgar has been so successfully championed and so
frequently recorded in the UK?
But if the issue is to be framed as one of concern that non-English conductors
and orchestras do not give the music the attention that it deserves (as it often
is, usually when an English critic wants to celebrate his nation's superior
cultivation in uniquely recognizing Elgar's unassailable genius), then there
needs to be coming from the English press a willingness to welcome views from
abroad and encourage every sign of foreign interest, and to express gratitude
when others take up the cause rather than dismissing with contempt the perceived
effrontery at the merest suggestion that a non-English orchestra and conductor
can play this music just as well as the domestic competition. The ongoing and
quite astonishingly silly controversy over Bernstein's DG Enigma Variations that
still pops up in commentary from time to time stikes me as a classic example of
the "This will never do!" approach so typical of so many members of the English
Mr. Dimmick's rather predictable affection for the "celebrated" 1954 Barbirolli
performance strikes me as another case in point. Is it good? Sure. Is it better
than Slatkin, Previn, Colin Davis, Previn, Haitink, and a few others I can think
of? I don't think so, and I don't think it helps the cause to maintain that
there's been nothing of similar quality since 1954. As long as this attitiude of
cultural xenophobia typifies much English criticism or can be said to represent
the cultural attitude of the English musical public (and I really don't know if
it does or not, though I have my suspicions), then Elgar will not receive the
attention abroad that those of us who love his music and would like to hear more
of it in concert feel that he deserves.