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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Disc 1

Symphony No. 1 in A flat Op.55 (1908) [48:37]
(I: Andante. Nobilmente e semplice Allegro; II: Allegro molto; III: Adagio; IV: Lento Allegro)
Disc 2

Symphony No. 2 in E flat Op. 63 (1911) [51:16]
(I: Allegro vivace e nobilmente; II: Larghetto; III: Rondo (Presto); IV: Moderato e maestoso)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1968. ADD
2 CDs for the price of 1
LYRITA SRCD.221 [48:37 + 51:16]


In this year of Elgar celebrations it is timely that Lyrita have brought out this set. It's handsomely presented - far more so than the original LPs, way back in the late 1960s. There are even good reflective notes from leading Elgar authority Michael Kennedy.

These performances should fascinate because they have languished in vinyl oblivion for so long. People are bound to compare them with Boult of the 1940s and more probably with Boult of the mid-1970s when EMI brought out sumptuous but oddly underpowered recordings of the same two symphonies.

There is in truth more grip and dynamism in these two recordings originally made with support from a certain cigarette manufacturer and benevolent supporter of many classical music projects. Boult's hold on the forward movement of the music is indubitable. Listen to the eloquent weight and concentration of the First Symphony. It's also not short on thrillingly gruff passion at 6:30 in the first movement for example. The intimately hushed introduction to the finale of the First Symphony is wondrously clear. Matters of balance and tempo are satisfyingly judged. This is not the most dramatic reading but it simply radiates authority.

This is aided by a luminous recording with a degree of Decca-style spotlighting. The end results are very agreeable. Stereo spread is nicely managed and there is plenty to engage the ear and mind as details bustle and bristle. My only criticism is that there is something that sounds on headphones like a density and maybe a slight pulling back on the punch during passages of sustained ff and above. That said, when at the apex of the finale Boult has the orchestra slashing and cross-cutting with the march-like theme there is a wonderful frisson. The golden blare of the brass at the end makes a warmly coloured energetic sunset.

The Second Symphony is less desirable simply because that measured gait saps the forward drive. There is a viscous resistance about the first movement which emphasises grandeur over momentum. I think we can hear the same tendency in the emphasis of propulsion accorded by Boult in the second movement of the Second Symphony around 8:00. Then at that key moment when the violins scythe downwards borne along by the scatter of harp raindrops at 10:02 the gesture emphasises Boult's desire for clarity. We miss the glorious impulse of the even more impressive and passionate Solti version on Decca. That tendency towards the flaccid can also be felt in the Rondo although this is probably the version in which it is easiest to follow the music in full score. Then again the finale is extremely successful and it could easily be argued that Boult is simply holding back in the earliest movements so that the finale can project as tellingly as it does. Boult slams the message home in a gloriously contrived climax at 8:30 onwards with the offbeat rhythmic hammer-blows jazzily slammed home.

These transfers by Simon Gibson are exemplary. For older listeners who recall the LPs it is rather like experiencing these recordings for the first time such is the purity of the sound and the lack of analogue and surface contact distractions. The horn whoop which is part of the explosion that ends the first movement of the Second Symphony is heard with full frontal clarity and richness. This is the same sound captured by the Lyrita team for the New Philharmonia horns at the end of the first movement of the Boult-conducted Moeran symphony. Much the same can be said of the percussion in the finale especially the cymbal taps at 6:36 onwards.

One peripheral aside. In listening to these two discs I was occasionally and unnervingly reminded of Sibelius. Boult was also a fine Sibelian. A pity EMI did not lead him back to those Nordic regions in the 1970s and 1980s his Vanguard recordings of the 1960s were outstanding.

Perhaps not the most passionately headstrong of readings but full of the satisfaction of maturity and not short of carefully managed excitement. Should be in the collection of all Elgarians.

Rob Barnett

 

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