The Greatest Symphony … at least for me

by Glenn on August 6, 2014

This evening I listened to the Symphony No. 1 in A flat major by Sir Edward Elgar. I chose a live recording of the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on 24 July 1970.

Cover of BBC recording of Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra playing Elgar's Introduction and Allegro fro Strings and Symphony No. 1.

Cover of Sir John Barbirolli in concert (his last as it turns out) with the Hallé orchestra and an all-Elgar program.

The symphony opens with an elegant and dignified tune played “Nobilmente e semplice” then repeated with full-throated triumph. But the victory is short-lived. The tune fades to stillness before Elgar takes us on a 40-minute musical journey that will bring us back to the opening theme and the end that ultimately does not fail. That T.S. Eliot quote comes to mind: “… and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Superlatives are dangerous. Difficult to prove and unnecessarily objection-raising, nevertheless, Hans Richter before rehearsing the London premiere of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra, declared to the orchestra, “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer—and not only in this country.”

It is a great symphony. My favorite, even above any of Mahler’s, which is saying something. “The greatest,” though, I consider a very personal and subjective—possibly indefensible—statement. I feel no compulsion either to defend it or to persuade others that it’s true.

Elgar created a grand and colorful statement full of magical moments. The transition from the second to the third movement is beautiful. The violins hold onto an f sharp (the second movement is in f sharp minor) and the third movement opens in the key of D.

The adagio speaks tranquility. No angst, just beauty. And those last few moments with the clarinet holding a note with the strings adding gentle punctuation are extraordinary. I remember hearing this symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, oh, thirty years ago—I think it was André Previn conducting—and there was a collective sigh from the audience at the end of this movement.

The fourth movement begins innocently, waking us out of that restful place and foreshadowing the tune that would be returning.

I suppose it’s in the transitions that Elgar shines in this symphony. Nothing is jarring. We certainly don’t have one affect through the piece, but we move so smoothly as we gear up or down to one mood or another. The symphony has a cyclic quality. The tune that bookends the work, appears throughout in little bits and pieces and in different forms.

As it true of most live recordings (actual “live” as opposed to recorded “live” then patched later), this is not a flawless recording (neither the playing nor the recording), but it is glorious (ah, those horns with the final statement of the theme—so inspiring) and played with great intelligence and heart.

And it is poignant. This was Barbirolli’s last concert with the Hallé Orchestra and the last time he conducted any Elgar. Michael Kennedy, in the liner notes, relates,

“He loved the work [Elgar’s Symphony No. 1] with a passion, as anyone listening can tell. He did not know that this was to be his last Elgar on this earth, although he had said to me a few weeks earlier: ‘You know, every concert now might be my last.’ Is it any wonder that he seems here to suffuse with an extra elegiac mood of leave-taking those lyrical and heart-easing passages in this great work that meant to much to him?”

What a gift Elgar
and Barbirolli left behind
soulful legacy


One comment

[…] 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 […]

by Solti’s Handling of Elgar’s First « on 25 June 2015 at 12:10 am. #