New Elgar 1: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic

by Glenn on August 21, 2014

CD artwork for Elgar Symphony Number 1 played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.This sometimes happens to me, I get into an Elgar’s First rut and find myself turning to it again and again over a short period of time. Here is a new release that was recorded in May 2012 that I listened to this evening (20 August 2014).

This is an incredible performance. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra bring exceptionally clean and crisp playing, particularly from the strings. They play phenomenally well.

In the passages where the rhythmic pulse is on an off beat, this orchestra plays with great precision.

The best aspect of this recording, though, is the recording itself. It’s got a gorgeous sound. I listened with headphones and heard everything from high to low. No harshness. Utter warmth.

Of all the performances I have heard of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, this may be by far the most colorful. There are nuances I haven’t heard anywhere else. That, for me, makes a great recording, when I am hearing things that I haven’t heard before.

A problem as it relates to this particular symphony is that I have a recording that I consider more or less definitive. It is by André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s in my desert island collection. I think it’s magical. The adagio on that recording is sublime.

So as I raise two minor objections to this performance as conducted by Sakari Oramo, I acknowledge I might have actually preferred this recording had I heard it first. It’s that good and shows such attention to detail. I will have to pick up the Royal Philharmonic CD again soon to check my remembrance before the memory of this one is gone.

My first objection is very picky: the opening tympani roll. I’m used to it being in time leading us into the opening theme. Here, instead, time is stretched and an ominous feeling introduced that is totally out of character for the symphony. When the theme does come in, the mood of the piece instantly changes. This opening doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, while I was amazed by the colors of this performance, I wonder if highlights and orchestral effects were prioritized above everything else, including thematic material. Odd tempo choices were introduced here and there seemingly because they allowed for a certain piquancy. As the thematic material of this cyclic symphony gets relegated to the background so that we can hear this or that effect, I got the feeling my attention was being drawn to the trees rather than the forest.

Is it possible they are showing off their ability to highlight the colors of the symphony rather than playing a great symphony? For better or worse, that sense of English reserve and dignity that I normally associate with this symphony is nowhere to be found. This is a European view of Elgar. It’s not bad, but it’s quite different from what I am used to.

That being said, this is an extraordinary performance and phenomenal recording.



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[…] Oramo | Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra (See my review here.) Recorded: May […]

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