Mark Elder’s is the most satisfying performance of RVW’s Symphony
5 that I’ve heard. Why? For me it’s because he gets the tempi just
right. He isn’t afraid to be unhurried and yet at the same time a
flowing, forward pulse is always apparent. You get a sense of smooth
evolution and natural progression. This is balanced with clarity of
structure. You also realize how much of an open air symphony this
is. The Hallé’s playing and the recording are also very fine and therefore
the whole atmosphere is bright, shining, luminous.
In the opening movement (tr. 1) Elder finds an appreciative, not simply
cosy, tranquillity, knowing what it is not to be tranquil. You can
savour the sheeny assurance of the second theme (3:03): the ‘Alleluia’
from RVW’s hymn ‘For all the saints’. Come the development (4:50)
their gossamer strings contrast with ominous woodwind. Its raw climax
seems not so much a storm as the trials of life to be faced before
the calm of the recapitulation and the radiant climax of the second
theme. I can imagine Elder saying to his brass ‘Breathe as much as
you like earlier on but I want you really loud here’. Probably he
didn’t need to but I’m sharing with you a moment from his rehearsals
of Britten’s Sinfona da Requiem in July 2012 with the Aldeburgh
Both this CD’s symphonies were first recorded by the Hallé with John
Barbirolli, Symphony No. 5 in 1944 (Dutton CDBP 9731). In the opening
movement JB relies on a conviction of momentum, an inner fire whereas
Elder stands back and lets things evolve. JB’s development is more
elemental, its climax more frenzied. His second theme climax is glows
in the sun but lacks Elder’s sense of nurtured fulfilment.
Elder’s Scherzo second movement (tr. 2) is alert and perky,
sleek and fresh. Out of its opening mystery come sudden flashes of
strings and woodwind colour. The first Trio (1:46) is formed
gradually from bumbling in the brass and lower woodwind. The second
Trio (3:20) has more bounce: a merry bluster until it dissolves
as if in an almost inexhaustible yawn. How well Elder lets us appreciate
the wonderfully deft orchestration. His Presto is not as
fast as Barbirolli’s (5:04 against 4:20) but this is to advantage,
for Elder’s opening is busy rather than hectic. The relaxed close
is also more appreciable, albeit JB have a more twinkling sense of
mischief and a racier, more raucous Trio 2. To the Romanza
(tr. 3) Elder brings a hushed opening, an eloquently contemplative
cor anglais solo and a profound density of elegiac strings. It’s assured,
gently tinged, not specially coloured yet deeply felt. The central
woodwind arabesques are bracingly savoured yet the development (5:44)
progresses to a searing realization of crisis. This is resolved by
the warmth and certainty of affirmation that comes with the recapitulation.
Barbirolli is faster in this movement too (11:16 against 12:17). This
brings more dramatic sweep, less contemplation, more deliberate setting
down and a reduced sense of unfolding of statement by comparison with
Elder. In the Passacaglia finale (tr. 4) the counter-theme
(0:12) ultimately proves more significant than the opening ground
bass. It’s begun benignly by Elder in a calm of easy momentum yet
his early variations soon show rhythmic teeth. A more festive second
phase ensues (1:43) and a more troubled third one (3:30). The coda
brings the return of the symphony’s opening now in a blaze of splendour.
The warmth of the counter-melody triumphs and is made more personal
by being taken up by several solo instruments. Elder presents all
of this with lucidity and great assurance. Again Barbirolli is faster
(9:10 against 9:59). This brings a purposeful sweep which, for all
that, sounds rather hasty in comparison with Elder. JB’s coda is equally
serene but not as warm.
RVW called the opening movement of Symphony 8 (tr. 5) ‘seven variations
in search of a theme’. To the first Elder brings a nonchalant start
but then a passionate outburst as part of the natural order of things.
His Variation 2 (1:47) has energy and lightness but also a steely
spikiness. The latter allows more contrast for the expansive relaxation
of Variation 3 (2:49) which in turn makes for a smooth transition
to a contemplative approach to Variation 4 (4:50). Steadiness remains
in Variation 5 (6:25) before an arrestingly faster Variation 6 (7:58).
The brakes come on again for Variation 7 (8:24) which brings back
the melody of Variation 3, now with trumpets glowingly to the fore.
Barbirolli is the dedicatee of this symphony and recorded it in 1956
Society CDSJB 1021). He’s faster in the first movement, 10:10
against Elder’s 10:54. This gives it more animation. His Variation
1 has more humour. His Variation 2 is more waspish. I find Elder’s
slower Variation 3 more satisfying but JB makes a good case for its
return as Variation 7 to be gentler early on yet retaining the feel
of a summation.
Elder’s Scherzo second movement for wind instruments wears
its virtuosity easily yet with appreciable clarity. It is pacy but
also jolly. The Trio which Elder takes at a leisurely Andante
is a refreshingly cool pastoral escape. Barbirolli makes less of a
contrast in tempo here. This spells a reduced sense of release yet
brings more humour to his slightly slower, less sheerly snazzy Scherzo.
The Cavatina third movement for strings alone (tr. 7) is
marked Lento espressivo. Elder, taking 9:18, stresses its
measured quality. Barbirolli, taking 7:43 emphasises its expressive
qualities. With Elder you get a sense of smooth elegiac reflection,
a seamless melodic line that keeps turning in on itself. This emerges
first from the cellos fully exploiting their wide compass, then from
rhapsodizing violins. This precedes a passage of stately repose in
all the strings. In the central interlude (4:01) a solo violin breaks
free and encourages an airier, more ardent and optimistic phase. After
this Elder’s recapitulation seems sullen in the lower strings albeit
offset by the calm of the upper strings. Yet what a richness of string
texture there is to appreciate. Barbirolli is earnest and heart-on-sleeve.
His passage of repose is less poised though his interlude gains fire
at this faster tempo. JB’s recapitulation is ominous, his upper strings
more troubled, his closing cello solo more heartfelt than Elder’s
more distilled purity of line.
Elder makes the Toccata finale (tr. 8) a sonorous celebration,
enjoying its showcasing of tuned gongs and glockenspiel. This rondo’s
closing blaze of triumph is only won after the negotiation of some
tricky episodes. The first (1:17) just threatens to disturb. The second
(2:19), more strident, and the third (3:10), more visionary and optimistic,
find the rondo itself changing to assimilate their points of view.
Elder stands back and gives us a clear view of these transformations.
Barbirolli, again a little faster (4:59 against Elder’s 5:17) has
greater energy and jollity with a decidedly dramatic first episode,
a scary second and a third which seems from an even more rarefied
world. The glory of this CD from Elder is that it offers a consistent
and sustained appreciation of the reflective aspects of these RVW
also review by John Quinn and Michael