Elgar: Symphony No. 2; In the South

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar Symphony No. 2
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; In the South
PERFORMER: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5038
Even on conventional CD playback this is an unusually transparent recording, and the SACD layer further lightens and clarifies Elgar’s textures, a welcome bonus in this often heavily scored symphony.

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The performance itself is consistently impressive. At its heart is a grave, sensitive account of the slow movement, expertly charted by Richard Hickox from its mournful, trudging origins in the underbelly of the orchestra, to the pained, searingly nostalgic final climax. Occasionally the violins feel tonally thin and undernourished, and this also happens periodically in Hickox’s articulate, excellently paced account of the lengthy first movement, where ensemble in the difficult opening paragraph is just a touch scrappy.

Tempos are again notably well struck in the finale, a strong sense of billowing forward momentum tempered by episodes of melting rubato. Hickox is splendid here, and though it doesn’t ultimately have quite the tonal plenitude and extraordinary emotional potency of Barbirolli’s stereo EMI recording, I have no hesitation in ranking this among the finest Elgar symphony interpretations of the digital era.

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Opening the programme is a surging, ebullient rendition of Elgar’s Italian travelogue In the South, where the SACD’s depiction of the deep-pile writing for bass drum is seriously impressive. Oddly there is more range of expression in the string playing here than in the symphony, the interpretation a winningly incisive blend of ardour and confidence. Terry Blain