Sakari Oramo’s Elgar symphony cycle is most notable for the ravishing Bis sound. Never, but never, have these pieces sounded this good. It’s the kind of recording quality that flatters the orchestra so much you’d never know they weren’t one of the three or four best ensembles in the world ... and the clarity! I don’t ever put on an album and follow along with the score, but a friend reports that this is the best way to do so. It’s easy to hear why: everything is there, from the basses on - up to the very natural violins and woodwinds. Climaxes are never congested. Basically, for your ears, these two discs are the equivalent of a day at the spa or a chocolate tasting.
What about the interpretations? Again, they automatically sound even better because you can hear every bit of commitment, passion and enthusiasm from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. There are just countless little details — like the fiery French horns rip-roaring in the First Symphony’s scherzo — which leave me enthralled.
As for Sakari Oramo, he’s better in the First Symphony than in the Second. The former begins with timpani rolls spaced so far apart I thought I’d missed the second one, but the movement turns out to be excellent, suitably dramatic and fairly conventionally paced. It’s a minute faster than the intensely slow Tate/EMI, but a good 90 seconds longer than Solti’s pace. Oramo uses a lot of rubato in the scherzo and at times you can feel it lurching into a slower gear with a sudden clunk. It’s like being in the car with someone who is learning how to use the clutch.
That’s my only complaint about a performance which is outstanding all the way through. The Adagio is gorgeous and touching; the finale’s a little slow at times but builds to a terrific coda. It’s complemented by a good Cockaigne overture that includes the optional organ part, although the organ is buried in the orchestral texture. This is the only flaw in the disc’s engineering. In Cockaigne, Alexander Gibson’s Chandos performance remains unsurpassed for sheer bravado, swagger and virtuosity.
The Second Symphony is best described as a “connoisseur’s performance”. That is, it’s an odd reading and one which should certainly not be your only recording. However, if you already have a few others, you’ll be interested in Oramo’s alternative ideas. That ambiguous opening chord is kept short and the first movement in general is on the lighter side, avoiding the darkness and operatic despair of some of the greats; Tate/EMI comes to mind. I’m seriously bothered by the huge slowdown in the final coda, which seems to be an attempt to replace the missing pathos. That said, you can hear some exquisite string playing, particularly from the first violin chair, at 7:00.
Then we get an excellent, Germanic funeral march, where at times Oramo uses the textures of the orchestra to remind us of Brahms and Bruckner. The scherzo reaches a sadly underpowered climax where the brass and percussion fail to cut through as they should. Elgar told the percussion to drown out the rest of the orchestra; he seems to have been echoing his own struggle with frequent migraines. The finale includes another optional organ part, but at 15:24 frequently feels stodgy: the last few minutes are magical, but not the bustling drama before.
In general, it seems fair to say that Oramo conducts the Second Symphony as if it is the First Symphony and as if its darker emotions are genteel rather than raw. This is an interpretive decision which leads to some success in parts and less success in others. People who have always loved the First but never understood the Second will find this account persuasive.
It’s certainly not boring to hear the later symphony conducted the same way as the earlier one. Moreover, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic still sounds glorious every step of the way. The album is recorded at a lower level, however, so you will need to increase the volume. Composer John Pickard supplies excellent essays with both discs, including a few track-timings to listen for things he’s talking about.
To summarize: an odd, unique, divisive Second Symphony; a First Symphony that only just misses perfection; fillers which are very good though not spectacular. It’s all in recorded sound so good that some folks might need to upgrade their stereo or headphones to appreciate it fully, especially the First Symphony.
And a second review of the Symphony 1 disc ...
One of Sakari Oramo’s many qualities, in my book, is his readiness to explore and champion British music. He did so during his years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, including performances and recordings of the music of John Foulds (review ~ review – recently reissued as a twofer on Warner Apex) and Constant Lambert. It’s been noticeable and welcome that in his first year leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra he’s once again performing the music of this country.
I’ve experienced him in Elgar before. Over the first weekend of June 2007, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, he performed all three major oratorios on consecutive days in Birmingham. I missed his Dream of Gerontius - though I subsequently reviewed his CD of it - but I attended his performances of The Apostles (review) and The Kingdom (review). In each case, though there were one or two things with which I didn’t quite agree, I thought that Oramo displayed a genuine feel for the score and conducted very well. Any conductor who is prepared to make the effort to learn and then lead successful performances of less frequently heard major works such as The Apostles and The Kingdom deserves to be taken seriously as an Elgar conductor. I missed Oramo’s earlier recording of the Second Symphony, unfortunately, though I see that Ian Lace was impressed by it (review), so I was keen to hear him in the First.
The motto theme is unfurled impressively – there’s a very full, rich sound when the whole orchestra restates the theme. I noted how Oramo gets the cellos and basses to play the last four or five notes of the moving bass line, immediately before the tutti, very fully indeed – the players play right through each note. That’s not an effect that one usually hears in so pronounced a fashion but it’s an effective device in paving the way for the tutti. Once the main allegro is launched the music is full of surge and swagger, while the lighter episodes are nicely turned. There’s much brilliance in the reading and the pace rarely slackens. It’s many, many years since I heard the Solti recording and I don’t have a CD of it but Oramo’s approach may not be too far removed from that, I suspect. At 6:30 Oramo doesn’t hold back rhetorically as most conductors do in my experience – at this point in his fine recording (review) Sir Mark Elder reins in the tempo more than Oramo and Vernon Handley also slows, though to a lesser extent, in his excellent 1979 EMI recording. As the movement unfolds Oramo seems to see it in one ambitious sweep and the performance has great energy and no little flamboyance. I do wonder, however, if the pace isn’t just a little too unremitting at times; it’s exciting but a bit breathless, even though the basic tempo, though brisk, is not outlandishly quick. I’m not sure that we hear in Oramo’s performance all the ebbs and flows - the frequent and vital tempo modifications - though his urgent approach brings its own rewards. There’s another point towards the end of the movement (15:30 in this performance) where traditionally many conductors, including Elder and Handley, hold back. Not Oramo: he presses on urgently. Interestingly, the composer himself, in his celebrated 1930 recording, also keeps the music on the move at this point but, then, his reading is notably urgent throughout. Oramo relaxes nicely in the closing pages and handles the tranquil conclusion very effectively.
The bravura scherzo is most impressive and it’s here where Oramo’s very welcome decision to divide his violins pays special dividends. The music is given excellent momentum though there’s some well-pointed gentle playing to admire as well. We’ve now reached the one point in the symphony that I think Oramo gets seriously wrong. He adopts a much slower tempo for the central section – the passage that Elgar famously told an orchestra to play ‘like something you hear down by the river’. I simply don’t like the music at this slower pace –it feels leaden - and to establish that tempo Oramo has to indulge in a significant and egregious rallentando in the preceding bars. Elder and Handley, by contrast, maintain an almost unchanged tempo for this passage – as do most conductors in my experience, including Elgar himself – and that works brilliantly, giving the music the necessary lightness of touch. Oramo sounds plodding here. He’s also a bit too deliberate for my taste in the transition to the sublime Adagio.
However, he redeems himself with a richly glowing performance of that slow movement, surely one of the most masterly and lyrical in all of Elgar’s output. Oramo handles this movement exceptionally well, shaping the music with care and understanding. In a distinguished all round performance the strings are particularly impressive; perhaps it’s significant that they are being conducted by a man who began his career as an orchestral violinist. At 10:54 there’s some wonderfully hushed playing by the strings, ushering in a superbly controlled and poetic treatment of the last few pages.
Elgar carries that hushed mood over into the start of the finale, as if reluctant to break the spell, and Oramo is no more ready to break it. His account of the introduction is highly atmospheric. Then the allegro bursts forth like an uncaged tiger (2:39). The ensuing performance is dashing and brilliant, just like Elgar’s music, until that heart-stopping moment (6:51) where the finale’s main march theme is miraculously transformed by Elgar into a gloriously generous string passage, accompanied by rippling harps. The passage is done full justice here: the playing is gorgeous but also seems wholly unforced. Then the brilliance is reasserted until we get to the final apotheosis of the symphony’s motto theme (19:26). Opinions are divided as to whether the surges from strings and timpani as the theme is played are there to decorate the tune or to disrupt it so that the final triumph is not easily won. Here I don’t think there’s much doubt that the surges are decorative and mightily impressive it all sounds. Oramo leads his orchestra in an exultant dash to the finish line and this Nordic Elgar First is over.
I do have some issues with this performance – primarily the treatment of the passage I mentioned in the second movement. However, these are matters of detail. Overall this is still a very impressive and engaging performance of the symphony. I think Oramo has the measure of the score – that’s beyond question – and he has its spirit too. His conception of the score is triumphantly realised by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic who play magnificently. All sections of the orchestra play splendidly but I must single out for special mention the horn section. Elgar is rivalled only by Richard Strauss in his writing for this instrument. Marvellously imagined horn parts are at the heart of almost all his mature orchestral scores and those in the First Symphony offer choice examples of his affinity with the instrument. The Stockholm horns play gloriously throughout.
The performance of Cockaigne is vital and colourful. The nobilmente theme shortly after the start is well done but, as with the first movement of the symphony, it’s the energy and vivaciousness of the performance that really sticks in the listener’s mind – the marching band is really sprightly and there’s more than a whiff of Pomp and Circumstance about this episode in Oramo’s performance. Some may feel that there’s insufficient relaxation along the way but I found it a very likeable performance. Sadly, however, Oramo rather overplays his hand at the very end where the final peroration (from 13:05) is too slow and over-inflated with an excessive slowdown leading into the passage. Both Boult (review) and Barbirolli (review) show just how it should be done, giving this passage due weight and grandeur without becoming pompous. Oramo has a splendid contribution from the organ in the closing pages.
The sound that BIS has obtained in these two recordings is excellent. I listened to the disc primarily as an SACD but I switched to CD when making my various comparisons. In both formats the sound is extremely impressive though on my equipment SACD had the edge. The sound has presence and impact and also the richness – not a cloying richness – which opulent scores such as these demand. The recordings also allow copious amounts of internal detail to register in both works but not in an artificial way. I can’t recall hearing the Symphony in more impressive sound. The excellent booklet note is by the composer John Pickard: I particularly liked his description of Cockaigne as ‘a sort of English Die Meistersinger.’ That thought, on which he expands in the note, had never occurred to me but it’s a well-made point.
Whilst I don’t think I could say that either performance would be the library choice for the respective works these are nonetheless excellent and highly enjoyable accounts and certainly offer a bracing alternative to the leading competitors. Since the performances are superbly played and recorded I don’t think anyone who invests in this disc will be disappointed. Now, I wonder if Mr Oramo could be persuaded to take up the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony?
Previous review (Elgar 2): Ian Lace
Masterwork Index: Symphony
1 ~~ Symphony 2