Daniel Barenboim conducts Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

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COMPOSERS: Edward Elgar
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
CATALOGUE NO: Decca 478 9353

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Daniel Barenboim’s Elgar Symphony No. 1 – so eagerly expected on disc after his recording of No. 2 two years ago – doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s. This is particularly the case in the first movement, a 20-minute music-drama in itself; as Barenboim heaves back the reins just before the first reminiscence of the march, one half expects to hear a Wagner tuba.

The opening march is a coiled spring; once the Allegro begins it has a surging, sometimes explosive energy. Barenboim sets subtly different tempos for passages that often run directly on from each other, but he also pushes round corners at which other conductors linger. Then there are the big, intense passages such as the brass climax towards the end of the movement – this is stretched out almost to breaking point, but the Staatskapelle Berlin’s players sustain it convincingly. The detail is always audible, even through the glowing full orchestra – the harp especially is a pleasure.

The second movement goes at a lick but the orchestra is crisp, and the transition to the third movement – which, for all its expansiveness, never wallows – is beautifully judged. In the finale, again, Barenboim pushes some passages close to the edge; the fugato halfway through is a maelstrom. When the march theme finally returns it seems to surf in, transformed into something hale and hearty rather than something that might save the world. Is that enough? That’s arguable – but what’s for certain is that Barenboim has here made this symphony his own.

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Erica Jeal