Elgar: Symphony No. 1 | Sinopoli/Philharmonia

by Glenn on February 26, 2016

Sir Edward Elgar on his Symphony No. 1:

“There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity and a massive hope in the future.”

Here is a terrific recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1990. It’s lovely. I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to this recording previously, but I can’t find any notes. (Symphony No. 2, included on this recording, will be my next assignment for my symphony project.)

I think I’ve given up the search for the definitive recording of this (or any other) symphony. I don’t believe I’m an adequate judge. These days I’m more interested in finding compelling renditions. Am I drawn in or pushed away? This performance “works” for me and I’m learning about the things that I appreciate in what I would call a first-rate recording, of which this is an example.

First, you get a sense that tempos are under control. The crescendo after the first, quiet statement of the theme says so much about an orchestra and a conductor. Can they build without rushing? It’s a challenge to hold back the tempo. There is the slightest push on this recording, but not enough to be troubling. I enjoyed the way team Sinopoli/Philharmonia handled Elgar’s challenging syncopations and offbeat rhythms nicely throughout.

Second, you need detail. Elgar’s magic is in his counterpoint and orchestrational detail. This is a very colorful performance. I’ve felt this with performances of Mahler and I think it’s true with Elgar as well: the great recordings allow you to hear differently. One moment I especially enjoyed in this recording was near the end with the final build-up to the grand restatement of the motto theme, there is a great interplay between the strings and brass that’s handled here masterfully—it’s one long line, rather than a competition of forces.

Aside: I have Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in my recent aural memory. What a contrast Elgar is with so much nuance and color and variety. Bruckner is all about raw power—blunt force. Elgar offers restraint and takes his time to build to strength.

Third, the adagio* has to be sublime. It needs to rise and fall (warm power and quiet strength) yet shimmer throughout. And at the end of the movement it’s all about the control the clarinet has. It’s all outstanding here.

Finally, are there goosebumps at the end? This may not be the most moving account I’ve heard. It’s a little reserved. But while I think there may be more soulful and gut-wrenching performances (I’ll have to give this another and less distracted listen another time to see if I feel the same), nevertheless I found this to be completely satisfying. Sinopoli is perhaps understated in some moments where he could cut loose. What he gains, though, is an orchestral tone that remains polished throughout. It feels like a beautiful marriage between a great work** and a great collection of artists. Sinopoli and the Philharmonia bring themselves to it without being overwhelmed by or imposing themselves on it.


*The symphony changes over time—numbers of movements, order of movements, form, etc.—the idea of the adagio is something I need to explore in my study of the symphony. Two observations about the adagio as a concept: 1. The idea of this really poignant moment is something that emerges over time. I don’t think Mozart or Haydn had the same idea for a slow movement that, say, Elgar had. 2. There is a tradition for reverse imposition on some of the “slow” movements of the early symphonies. Since Elgar’s adagio is slow (for example), therefore we should play the Allegretto in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 slowly as well. I think the HIPP (historically informed performance practice) people would say that the early symphonies have been corrupted. So now we have a split in the way the slow movements of the early symphonies are performed.

**Hans Richter at the first rehearsal: “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer—and not only in this country.”

One comment

[…] I listened to a recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon | March 1987 | London, Walthamstow Town Hall). It’s on a two CD set, which includes Elgar’s First, which I listened to the other night. […]

by Symphony Study No. 38/118 | Elgar No. 2 | Sinopoli | Philharmonia « glennaustin.com on 28 February 2016 at 6:14 pm. #