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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 [52.29]
Cello Concerto [27.20]
Symphony No. 2 [51.28]
Pomp and Circumstance Marches [27.45]
André Navarra (cello), Halle Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Arthur Bliss (P&C)
rec. 1956 (Symphony no.1), 1957 (Cello Concerto), 1954 (Symphony no.2), 1958 (Pomp and Circumstance marches)
MAJOR CLASSICS M2CD008 [79:49 + 79:13]

Although a set of tremendous historic importance, this immediately disappointed in its presentation: a thin booklet contains fairly simplistic notes about the works and about Barbirolli’s involvement with Elgar’s music. These are displayed in suspiciously widely-spaced lines and very basic layout. None of the details one would expect or desire are given, such as recording locations or original issue catalogue numbers; nor did I feel that a contemporary photo of the Houses of Parliament was a particularly appropriate cover. The lack of attention to detail is exacerbated further by the fairly heinous sin committed of listing the First Symphony in the wrong key on the back cover and inlay.

My first impression on listening to the recording of the First Symphony was that I had never heard Elgar sound so Mahlerian. There is a slightly thin sound from the orchestra at the very beginning, but the Hallé soon blooms out into something far richer and thicker. The individual members of the orchestra do not play particularly well, but nevertheless inject the work with plenty of passion, so that one cannot fail to be impressed by the heart and soul present in the performance. Barbirolli also creates a good sense of pace and proportion throughout. The only other element of the recording that disappointed me — apart from slightly below-par playing — was the performance of, and balance given to, the concert master. He is really too prominent through both the solo and non-solo sections, and his very wide and slow vibrato demonstrates a very dated and localised style of playing often borne of an under-developed technique.

The recording of the Cello Concerto, made a year later than that of the First Symphony, is more sophisticated. We have the sense that the players are rising to the standard of the soloist, André Navarra, whose performance is of a sound, Continental European style of playing, which avoids the histrionics of later interpretations. His vibrato sometimes becomes a little wild, but he otherwise has a good sound, and generally acquits himself well, playing with feeling and with sensitivity. Another feature of the recording of this work that particularly pleased me was the nice tempo in the second movement, which Barbirolli takes at a decent pace, and not too fast.

The second disc of this two-disc set opens with the Second Symphony, which is given a stronger performance than the First – a better-played, cleaner rendition. It has a tremendous amount of drive, as well – more so than in some of Barbirolli's later versions. Here, for example, he injects a sense of urgency in the fourth movement by moving off dotted crotchets slightly early so that the following quaver is on the front edge of the beat, resulting in an exciting and compelling recording. I was, however, disappointed that the principal trumpet failed to hold that famous top B natural in the fourth movement for long enough.

The set concludes with a performance of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Arthur Bliss. The first three marches come across as having quite a harsh recorded sound, and there is then a complete change when we reach the fourth – this and the following marches have a cleaner, fresher and more rounded sound – less narrow and brittle; the brass are also set further back, which works better. It is another thrilling performance, yet rather marred by the fact that the third march is oddly curtailed by either the engineers or in the re-mastering – suddenly cut off at the end, giving the listener an unpleasant jolt. Otherwise it is another fine and seminal recording.

On the whole, the set presents extremely valuable recordings, yet is entirely let down by the appearance, booklet, and general presentation.

Em Marshall-Luck