Daniel Barenboim | Elgar: Symphony No. 1

by Glenn on April 30, 2016

Until I saw this recording, it hadn’t occurred to me that Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 has been recorded almost exclusively by English orchestras. If the discography here is correct, recordings of this symphony beyond the United Kingdom have only been made in the last twenty years and most of those by British conductors*:

Stephen Somary | Thüringen Philharmonie (1996)
Sir Colin Davis* | Dresden Staatskapelle (1998)
Sir Roger Norrington* | Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (1999)
Jeffrey Tate* | Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (2005)
Martyn Brabbins* | Flemish Radio Orchestra (2006)
Vladimir Ashkenazy | Sydney Symphony Orchestra (2008)

Daniel Barenboim, the Argentinian and Israeli pianist and conductor, recorded Elgar’s First with the London Philharmonic in 1974. Here, forty years later, he is acting as import agent for his German orchestra, recording again music that Elgar intended to embody “great charity and a massive hope in the future.”

The genius of Elgar is in the colors of his orchestration. The best part of this recording is realizing that orchestration in what may be the most colorful rendition I’ve heard. The instrumental combinations that Elgar uses are imaginative and beautiful and can be heard here consistently throughout the symphony.

There may be other recordings that I prefer for emotional reasons, but this is certainly one to inform (at the very least) the others. This recording is extraordinarily balanced and blended, which triggers a thought: It doesn’t seem possible that an orchestra could be this finely balanced and you wonder between the conductor and the recording engineer, who is controlling the sound of this orchestra as heard on this recording? The brass never overwhelms in the loud moments where you are still able to hear an occasional grunt from the conductor. But how is all of that possible? More later.

The tone of and articulation in the strings is phenomenal. At 8’39” into the first movement (5th bar after 23—A score is available here) the violins have a line that is answered by the cellos—what powerful yet gorgeous string tone. There are many moments like this where you realize the strings of the Staatskapelle Berlin have a playing style they bring to Elgar but which also includes a fair amount of tastefully applied portamento. At the 14:40 mark (2nd–4th bars after 41), the cellos have a series of lines with extraordinary articulation. So clean and energetic and yet so quiet.

The second movement is taken at breakneck speed. The players are up to it though. Lines are played fast and furious but cleanly. I especially enjoyed the low strings at the outset.

I’ve never noticed that the first three movements all end quietly. There’s a lot of delayed gratification in this symphony. Of course the end of the second movement has the violin line that hangs over as we change keys for the adagio. That’s a magical moment. In this recording the effect is increased because everything that has come before in this movement has been so fast. Barenboim makes much of the contrast here and takes his time leading us into the adagio.

The solo clarinet and violin interplay at 4’29” into the adagio (98) demonstrates wonderful chamber playing. Barenboim gives this movement so much space to unfold. It doesn’t feel plodding, but there is no hurry here. Next to the coloring, this may be the most remarkable aspect of this recording—a slow that doesn’t feel slow.

Something that Barenboim doesn’t do is allow the music to become overwrought. At 7’20” into the adagio (101) the cellos in other recordings are crying. Here they are restrained, which is a little ironic because I think of English reserve but it’s the British recordings that tend to get emotional at this point. Here a bit of German intellectualism or distancing prevails. It feels like there is an agreement: It’s just a symphony, let’s not get carried away here.

There are only two critical things I would say about this recording. First, the dynamic range is pretty narrow, meaning that the difference between the opening tympani roll and the full orchestra restatement of the theme two minutes in feel not that much different in a pair of headphones. (Going back to my question of how much control the engineer is exercising over this performance.) It’s like this recording was designed for FM radio play until the final minute of the adagio where dynamics seem come into play for the first time. It’s whisper quiet and a beautiful end to this movement.

The other criticism is related to the first and has to do with the climax of the symphony. This is a cyclical symphony—our tune from the very first bars which has then made various appearances in different forms throughout the piece comes back one final time near the end. If, during this last statement of the theme, the hair on your arms doesn’t stand up, then something has gone wrong and the symphony sort of fails as it does here for me.

I think this may be a problem with the engineering process, though. At 8’55 (141) the build to the final restatement begins. Clarity of the lines seems to be the priority at 9’04”, but that isn’t a problem, yet. At 9’21” (143) the horns push the tempo too much for me, which suggests some impatience with the process of taking us to a conclusion. Then at 9’39” (145) we run into the real issue which is that the build-up to the final restatement feels more like a flat line* on the recording so that when the theme hits at 9’50” (146) we haven’t really ascended the mountain peak finding ourselves above the clouds to see the sunrise hit. It’s just more of what has come before. It’s cleanly articulated and we hear everything, but I don’t feel the sense of majesty (marked Grandioso in the score). I feel like I can sense the orchestra building in the actual performance—it would have been fun to attend one of the concerts where this was recorded to hear what was actually heard in the hall—but the recording doesn’t reflect the build. The victorious return of the theme is understated here so that we get all the orchestral effects but lose the overall affect.

If the rest of the recording hadn’t been so beautifully polished, the end would have been more disappointing.

What we are left with is a phenomenal orchestra playing a phenomenal score in a fresh way. They are free to play the music as it is on the page without, one imagines, much playing history. I miss what could be some nationalistic overtones in the playing of English orchestras, but I love the sound of this recording and this orchestra.


*In fairness, the score only shows the tympani and trumpets with volume changes, but the music certainly builds in intensity and should hit a new volume level at 146.