Solti’s Handling of Elgar’s First (Symphony Studies No. 1 of 118)

by Glenn on June 25, 2015

One of my long-term projects is to read through the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony and listen to the works he describes.

The Symphony by Michael Steinberg

I first encountered Steinberg’s writing when we attended a San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concert (Mahler 5) some years ago and discovered his beautiful program notes. The Symphony contains notes for 118 symphonies with brief autobiographical details for the 36 composers who wrote them.

My goal is to read each program note and find a good example to listen to. I thought I would start with a familiar and favorite composer and work, Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No 1 Op. 55.

I decided to listen to the version recorded by Sir Georg Solti and The London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1972. It’s rated very highly by The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, 2008 Edition.

This recording snuck up on me. I was prepared not to like it based on prior stamping of the André Previn and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording which is on my desert island list of classical music, but the longer the Solti recording went on, the more I enjoyed it. What had me wary at first was the actual recorded sound, which has the strings quite present but the brass rather contained and kept at arm’s length.

Steinberg quotes Elgar (from 13 November 1908) on the essence of this symphony:

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

Steinberg got me thinking about the large juxtapositions in the symphony:

1. The two themes in the opening movement—the first is slow and solemn (“stable and consistent”) and the second is quite agitated (“restless, changeable, nervous “).

 

2. The two themes in the second movement—An aggressive opening theme followed by a light and delicate one.

 

3. A third juxtaposition I had never heard before, but the shape of the agitated theme in the second movement is the same theme in slower form for the third movement adagio. I had never seen or heard that before even though we studied this symphony in graduate school.

Regardless of where the tune comes from, the adagio is sublime. One of the truly great moments in classical music.

As the music unfolded, I began to appreciate what Solti does in terms of control. His band tackles the above-mentioned juxtapositions nicely. Quick sections are played with great precision and fire. Think crisp, British, military precision. Everything in place and at the right time.

Solti handles the transition into the adagio beautifully. This  was one of my favorite moments in the recording. He takes his time, but not too long.

 

The effect is exquisite. In the adagio, he turns some metered notes into grace notes, which adds a delightful color and quality.

 

And then he is disciplined in his transition into the fourth movement. After that sublime adagio you don’t want to get going too quickly. Solti eases us into the fourth movement so patiently.

 

Collect enough moments like this and you end up with a great recording.

Among the challenges for conductors is once the fourth movement does get rolling, How do you make the last movement sound both muscular and precise? Solti handles it extremely well here (and elsewhere).

 

The climax in the fourth movement is what brings me back to this work again and again. I’ve always found it heroic, but Steinberg has a much more complicated impression of this conclusion and expresses it poetically:

“At last the grand melody steps forward, not as a ghost, but in a blaze. The orchestra tries to crush it, furious waves break upon it. The tune prevails, but only just. It is perhaps the most ambiguous peroration to any symphony, and one of the most moving.”

Here is that moment as Solti and the London Philharmonic present it.

I know the recorded sound can’t compare with the Previn/RPO recording, but this is terrific performance and rendition.

***

I came back to Elgar’s First last night, this time a live performance from 1970 by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra.

Barbirolli takes a much slower and solemn tempo at the beginning and throughout the work there are plenty of contrasts with the Solti recording. Most significant is the fact that he is more elastic with the tempo. It feels like he is less controlling of the orchestra, which results in a more colorful sound but perhaps some imprecision as well.

It’s not really fair to compare these two recordings. I’m certain Solti’s performance is from the studio where Barbirolli is live and could benefit from some patching up. The Hallé Orchestral is less precise where the London Philharmonic is on a short leash.

It’s hard to know what I would think of the Barbirolli performance had I heard it first. Perhaps Solti’s rendition would have seemed too tame. As it is, I feel like the Hallé Orchestra plays a bit like an English garden can look—a bit overgrown here and there, spilling over onto pathways, but an absolute feast for the senses.

***

Funny, I just realized I listened to this Barbirolli recording and wrote about it last summer. (Yes, I have quite a number of versions and, no, I haven’t heard them all and, yes, I need to do a better job of managing notes. That’s another project we’re working on.) It’s interesting to check in with your impressions over time. Since I had forgotten that I had listened to this recording I think I came with open ears but neither listening experience bowled me over.

It’s been a couple of years since I heard it, but based on some notes I do have organized, I think I might prefer an earlier recording Barbirolli made with the Hallé Orchestra back in 1956. On this recording I noted “the generous though not overwhelming use of portamento” in the adagio. It can be heard in the following example at 10″, 11″, 25″, and 31″.

 

In comparing it to the Previn recording I wrote it had “a deep emotional commitment, just slightly more reserved.”

Here is an informal ranking of the recordings for which I have made notes (or, in the case of Previn/RPO have a very strong impression). These are in order, more or less, of my personal feelings about them.

André Previn | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1985

Bernard Haitink | Philharmonia Orchestra (See my review here.)
Recorded: Walthamstow Assembly Hall | 20–21 April 1983

Sir Georg Solti | London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded: 1972

Sir John Barbirolli | The Hallé Orchestra
Recorded: Manchester, Free Trade Hall | 11 & 12 December 1956

Sakari Oramo | Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra (See my review here.)
Recorded: May 2012

Sir John Barbirolli | Hallé Orchestra (See my review here.)
Recorded Live: 24 July 1970

I know I have listened to others—Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and a couple of recordings by Sir Colin Davis come to mind. I seem to recall that one of the latter has A LOT of groaning, which was pretty distracting. I won’t claim that it was self-indulgent or anything, but it is annoying.

One comment

[…] It’s fascinating to listen to this piece, which I doubt I’ve heard in anything like recent memory, with ears that are nearly 30 years removed from college music studies and 15 years from teaching at Azusa Pacific. What I hear today that I don’t think I would have heard before is the way Haydn plays with the key. It sounds like he’s all over the place. Really inventive and creative. The B section has an extraordinary quality to it. Is that a Central European (Hungarian?) tune/feel? And yet for all his inventiveness and creativity, this piece is so contained. It is a caprese salad to the Beef Bourguignon that is Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, the first symphony I listened to for this exercise. […]

by Haydn: Symphony No. 88 (Symphony Studies No. 2 of 118) « glennaustin.com on 14 July 2015 at 10:13 am. #