Prom 2 | Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

by Glenn on July 29, 2017

It won’t be available to listen to much longer, but the performance of Elgar’s First Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim at the Second BBC Prom is fabulous.

My embarrassingly and unjustifiably large collection of recordings of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 consists of nearly 80% performances by English/British orchestras. It’s remarkable when a German orchestra, say, chooses to play/record this symphony, even more so when they take it on the road and play in England.

In a review of the performance, Andrew Clements wrote,

“Much more than most of his British contemporaries, Elgar has always seemed a thoroughly European composer, whose stylistic roots delve so deeply into the Austro-German tradition, and hearing his music played by an orchestra at the very heart of that tradition reinforces those affiliations.”

The Staatskapelle Berlin with Mr. Barenboim released a recording of this symphony not too long ago. My memory is that it was quite good, but I’m wishing they were going to make the recording now. What I heard in this performance was striking in its color and concept. The Berlin players bring out the operatic quality of this music nicely. The string players use a tasteful amount of portamento, which adds a kind of nostalgia to the recording. The playing is clean and tight. It feels like they own the work better than they did.

The two inner movements are connected in the music. In this performance, Barenboim tied them to the last movement by not taking any sort of pause. It was a lovely effect.

I agree with Mr. Clements’ conclusion that on both the recording and this performance “The return of the motto theme in the closing pages of the First Symphony didn’t quite sweep everything before it as it can in some performances.”

Still, the playing is phenomenal. A great way to begin a Saturday morning.

Postscript [16 August 2017]:

Postscript:

Yesterday, I checked out SymphonyCast for the first time in a long time and I saw that their 31 July 2017 program featured this performance of Elgar’s First Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin. I thought I would listen one last time before this performance went away.

I didn’t like it as well as I remembered. Balances were strange. There was a monotonous quality to the performance. There was a moment at the end of the first movement where it sounded like the musicians got out of sync with each other for a moment. As I listened, I wondered if this was the same performance? Were my initial, positive impressions about this performance unwarranted?

I don’t think so.

My hypothesis: The producers of SymphonyCast have applied a generous amount of compression to this performance so that the highs and lows are effectively gone.

As I was listening, I noticed I never thought about changing the volume. Quiet moments weren’t so quiet that I needed to bump up the volume, loud moments weren’t so loud that I wondered if I should turn it down. The whole thing was one level, which basically wrecks the performance because it eliminates dynamics. You get this strange effect of a full orchestra playing fff sounding as loud as a few musicians playing as quietly as possible.

At the end of the adagio, there is supposed to be a quiet stillness as the strings and a few woodwinds play and muted horns offer a quiet, “off in the distance” fanfare. In a concert hall, you are carefully listening, not wanting to miss anything. On this recording you couldn’t miss anything. In fact, the coughs from the audience were generously amplified well beyond what I remembered with the BBC recording.

The original performance I heard through the BBC Proms website, which may have had some compression, but I believe had a wider dynamic range than this performance. That out of sync moment at the end of the first movement I heard last night I probably missed when I listened through the BBC player because it was so quiet. If it was out of sync, perhaps the players in that moment couldn’t quite hear each other because they were playing so quietly.

I assume SymphonyCast is trying to make this performance ideal for listening in places where even volumes are helpful—in a car, through headphones on a subway, at work. But if you are at home with reasonably good headphones, you don’t need this kind of amplification and attenuation of the playing levels.

If my assumptions are correct, I am struck by how different I felt about this performance based on how the NPR engineers have changed it. If I am wrong about the manipulation of the sound, then I don’t know what to think.

NPR did a nice piece some years back, “The Loudness Wars,” on the two forms of compression that get applied to recordings. It can be seen and heard here.

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