Elgar: Symphony No. 2

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WORKS: Symphony No. 2
‘I have worked at fever heat, and the thing is tremendous in energy.’ One thing I always look for in a new recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony is a sense of that tremendous creative energy. In Elgar’s own version it springs out at the listener so powerfully that the limitations of the recorded sound are soon forgotten. And yet no one since Elgar has quite managed to equal it – nor the breathtaking ‘flying’ effect as the music presses forward, almost falling over its own beat. Davis’s version of the First Symphony suffered from an excess of gravity in its early stages: the first movement had to struggle to get off the ground. Here, though, the opening bar launches the music almost as effectively as Elgar himself. Granted, Davis is more expansive than Elgar. Tempi tend to be slower, and Davis lingers lovingly over details or whole phrases. Just occasionally the indulgence is questionable, as in the hugely rhetorical pause at the climax of the slow movement’s march theme. But the energy rarely abates for long. It’s a performance with a purpose, but not one that glosses over the Symphony’s emotional complexities. Still, anyone who wants to get to the heart of its ambiguities while at the same time reliving that ‘fever heat’ has to go to Elgar’s recording. Interestingly, its early mono sound is easier to adjust to than the airless ambience in this modern version. Listeners to Davis will also have to find some way of mentally filtering out the conductor’s own vocal contribution – definitely not for squeamish ears. Stephen Johnson