Elgar 1 by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

by Glenn on July 19, 2015

I’ve given up the search for the definitive recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 (or Anybody’s Symphony No. Whatever for that matter). Appreciating a particular musical recording is largely a matter of taste, although the more you can articulate what you do and don’t like in a recording, your opinions will sound like you are appealing to an objective reference, i.e. truth.

Perhaps listening to a new recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 is like trying the Beef Bourguignon at a new restaurant. You may attempt to place that experience of taste of a favorite dish into a hierarchy, so that you can announce that this was the best or second best or worst or whatever Beef Bourguignon you’ve ever had.

But I think that’s the wrong approach, whether you are contemplating a new rendition of a favorite dish or a new recording of a beloved symphonic work.

Here are two questions that matter most:
Did you enjoy it?
Would you have it again?

I really enjoyed this new release of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and I will most certainly listen to it again. This was wonderful.

 clean, precise playing
with limited resonance
honest recording

On the performing (cooking) side of the recording process, the recipe (score) is the same, but the head chef (conductor) and team of cooks (orchestra players) will prepare the dish differently than other orchestras and conductors (complicated by the recording process, which is a kind of translation—just to mix my metaphors), which means it’s possible to enjoy the Beef Bourguignon by many different cooks.

So I’m not going to attempt to rank this Elgar Symphony No. 1, but it is amazing and I will certainly add it to my list of favorites.

In the first movement Petrenko/RLPO take the second theme at a faster clip than what I’m used to, but the playing is tight and together. That moment becomes an exemplar for the whole symphony, which is beautifully articulated.

I’ve noticed some recordings can sound very mushy. There is so much resonance that it’s hard to hear any definition to the playing. I wonder if resonance can be a form of hiding, in which case you can’t tell if the band plays cleanly or sloppily. (They may be great, but you can’t tell; they may be bad, but you can’t tell.)

This orchestra isn’t hiding. There is a certain fearlessness to this recording because it’s so dry and the articulation so precise. One of Elgar’s points of genius is his colorful orchestration. This recording allows you to hear the colours (British spelling since it’s Elgar). The only place this hurts the recording potentially is in the Adagio where the sound doesn’t quite envelope you. It’s like the actor who is so focused on clear enunciation that come of the emotion (found in the vowels) gets lost.

Overall, the band plays with a lot of English reserve, which seems appropriate.

There were a couple of places in the last movement where other conductors have inserted a bit of a luftpause. I missed those here, but there is so much to recommend this performance.

It was recorded in 2009, but appears to have just been released. It’s a shame there was such a delay.

By the way, my favorite Beef Bourguignon recipe can be found here. It’s incredible. But it’s summer and too hot to have an oven slow cooking a stew for hours on end.

 CODA

It’s fun to form an opinion of a work and then read what others say about it. Here’s a note from Andrew Clements of The Guardian:

“Vasily Petrenko’s first foray into Elgar on disc seems unfocused and immature. … Petrenko fatally misjudges the function of the processional with which the work opens and which is thematically responsible for so much that follows, right up to its appearance as the coda to the finale.”

Wow, “fatally misjudges.” Not so much a review, but an obituary. Read the rest of review here.

Geoffrey Norris says that Petrenko

“… exerts a natural pliability on the phrasing, which lends the symphony the suppleness that is quintessential to its fabric. Added to that, the RLPO plays with clarity of texture, a fullness and glow of tone, well-honed emotion and springy muscle together with a marked appreciation of Elgar’s thoroughly personal palette of orchestral timbres.”

That’s more what I thought. Read rest of review here.

Paul E. Robinson of Musical Toronto writes,

“I first heard this recording on the radio without knowing the identity of either the orchestra or the conductor. I was so impressed with the performance that I had to stop the car to listen to the whole thing. When I got my own copy, I listened twice more before writing this review. The third time through, the performance remained as compelling as the first time.”

Yes! Read review here.

The review with the best English humor comes from John J. Puccio (read review here). He liked the recording, but I liked what he said about the symphony itself:

“Elgar wrote his Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55, in 1908, just a few years after he completed the first four of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and he apparently had plenty of pomp and circumstance left over for the symphony.”

Yea, there’s some truth there.

It appears that the hater is the outlier. If only that was always true.