Elgar: Symphony No. 2; Introduction and Allegro; plus reading of Shelley: ‘Song’

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WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Introduction and Allegro; plus reading of Shelley: ‘Song’
PERFORMER: Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
It was a good idea to have Mark Elder recite Shelley’s ‘Song’ before his performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony. We know the line Elgar chose as his superscription – ‘Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!’ – but the complete text makes clear that the point lies in that rarely: there’s a deeply depressive core to the poem, as to the Symphony. Its Larghetto here is shrouded in inconsolable gloom, the scherzo furious and hag-ridden, the pomp of the first movement collapses into melancholia at the development, the serenity in which the finale ends is ambiguous and won against great odds. It’s a dark but emotionally consistent reading, abetted by superb playing filled with the palpable warmth and affection that the piece must arouse in the breast of any British orchestra. Elder’s firm shaping of the big paragraphs, never allowing passages to lapse into mere nostalgia (the control of the coda’s ‘dying fall’ is exemplary), arouses admiration, as does his microscopic attention to detail, which the almost superhuman intricacy of Elgar’s scoring demands, and gets too rarely. He’s aided by an excellent recording that separates the multi-layered strands to perfection. The new version enters a crowded field, with rightly admired competition from Handley (CfP), Downes (Naxos) and Solti (Decca) among others, as well as Elgar’s own superb historical recording (EMI) and Boult’s final account (EMI), which remains for me supreme – but only just – in terms of structural grasp, intensity and utter identification with the composer’s idiom. This new version, though, forcibly reminds me of Barbirolli’s 1964 Hallé recording (also EMI), the version I grew up with: that still sounds well and resonates with a dreamier poetry than Elder achieves, although Elder’s fast tempi are a shade more alert. The Introduction and Allegro, passionately played, also put me in mind of Barbirolli’s classic recording with the Sinfonia of London, which I offer as an accolade of high praise. An excellent release, worth any Elgarian’s adding to their collection. Calum MacDonald