As its early champion, the conductor Hans Richter prepared Elgar’s First for its London airing after the Manchester premiere, welcoming the players to ‘the greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country’.

The international fortunes of a true giant among symphonies have been variable. Many potentially ideal interpreters, from Furtwängler and Toscanini to Karajan and Claudio Abbado, never touched it.

That’s a shame, for its epic battle between security – as represented by the noble ideal at the start – and doubt, is etched in a sensitively scored musical language which cries out for a true master’s flexibility.

Still, we’ve had plenty of great and sometimes unexpected champions, including Solti, Sinopoli, Haitink and Previn.

If British national treasures Boult, Barbirolli and Davises Colin and Andrew tend to have dominated, that’s not to suggest that there is anything remotely parochial or cosily English about this very emotional masterpiece.

The best recording…

Sir Adrian Boult
London Philharmonic Orchestra (1977)
EMI 382 1512

A young Adrian Boult was there at the rehearsal of Richter’s first London performance of the Symphony in 1908, and prepared it for the composer to conduct in 1932. He made three studio recordings; the second from 1966, currently available on the Lyrita label, has plenty of the Toscanini-like energy he could conjure up in younger days, but can be a bit dry, an impression reinforced by the sound.

It’s the 87-year-old Sir Adrian’s 1977 EMI recording which trails clouds of glory and catches that sense of the numinous at the heart of the work which evades all but the most sensitive Elgar interpreters.

There’s nothing rigid about this performance: indeed, the anxieties and terrors of the first movement unfold at a more fluid pace than in the interpretations of many younger conductors, and if the finale is stately compared to some, the grandeur of the victory is backed up by full, brass-gilded LPO tone reinforced by the classic production team of Christophers Bishop and Parker.

What sets this performance apart is the tenderness with which Sir Adrian unfolds Elgar’s most secret visions: the dreamy string reveries wrapped around the first-movement development, the river-music rippling at the heart of the otherwise embattled scherzo and, above all, what many (and I’m one) believe to be the most serene and introspective of symphonic Adagios.

Three more great recordings…

Sir Edward Elgar
London Symphony Orchestra (1930)
Naxos 8.111256

Elgar as conductor shows us what it is to live the whole human experience of the First Symphony with electric intensity. He stresses the spring in his noble ‘motto’ theme rather than any false grandeur, and in the buffets of the first movement his tempo variations are elastic but not exaggerated; he catches the delicacy of the scherzo’s ‘water-music’ more carefully than anyone else, and provides a uniquely propulsive drive towards the exuberance of a true symphonic triumph.

Others, like Solti, have emulated his nervous tension, but fail to match the sheer poetry between the lines. And it all sounds remarkably good for 1930, with exemplary balances and only a bit of smudging in the ensembles.

Sir Andrew Davis
Philharmonia Orchestra (2007)
Signum Classics SIGCD168

There are still those who find Sir Andrew Davis just a touch safe, but he’s lived with this music for decades, so give me this security and handsome blend any day over the brute force of his elder counterpart (and no relation) Sir Colin’s performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

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The conflicts are unusually light and springy. I also hear more of Elgar’s dynamic injunctions realised here than in any other version – especially the return of the first movement’s disquiet over a second, louder stalking theme in the bass – and real pianissimos in the most refined of all Adagios.

Handsome Philharmonia strings are one decisive gain over their slightly scrawny BBC Symphony counterparts in Sir Andrew’s first recording.

Sir John Barbirolli
Philharmonia Orchestra (1963)
EMI 968 9242

If I’m going to reject Sir Colin Davis, Mark Elder and Giuseppe Sinopoli for heavy-handedness, Barbirolli should be outlawed too; all his tempos are slower than Elgar would have countenanced.

But there’s something so heartfelt about his emotional approach – and it’s the one I came to first, just the last few minutes on an EMI compilation called ‘Your Kind of Elgar’.

I’ve never found this final ‘swimming in the soup’, as Sibelius once said of his own very different blend, more exciting than here. Nor is the studio mix overflattering; Barbirolli conjured the same rich sound from his own Hallé Orchestra in a live BBC Legends recording from 1970. For a smoother ride, though, this is the one.

Original text by David Nice


David NiceJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

David Nice is a regular critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine and contributor for BBC Radio 3. He is a former music critic of The Guardian and The Sunday Correspondent and is an expert in Russian music, having released an in-depth biography of Prokofiev for Yale University Press in 2003. Nice has also published studies of Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Stravinsky and the history of opera.