WORKS: Cockaigne ‘In London Town’; Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
CATALOGUE NO: ONYX 4145
My first thought on finishing listening was, ‘I wish Michael Kennedy had lived to hear this.’ Other Russian conductors have given us valuable alternative perspectives on Elgar: Yevgeny Svetlanov and Gennady Rozhdestvensky in particular. But this is more than that. The sense of the long, fluid, intensely (but never exaggeratedly) expressive line that makes Petrenko’s Shostakovich and Rachmaninov so special pays similar dividends here. Not once was I made aware of how much rhythmic repetition there is in Elgar – a sure sign that a performance is working well. The Symphony’s fast movements have compelling momentum without once sounding hurried: the finale in particular is proof that this music can be exciting without turning it into a mad scramble. Petrenko doesn’t pull his punches, but there’s also affection, tenderness, a feeling for that peculiarly Elgarian nuanced pathos that recalls Schumann but remains entirely personal.
Qualities like ‘spirit of place’ are still harder to define, but there were times during the Symphony when I wondered if Petrenko’s preparation for this recording hadn’t included a cycling tour of Herefordshire. Overall the Symphony is rich in mood and character, strong in overall conception, but also managing – as few recent versions have – to recapture that sense of ‘massive hope’ Elgar claimed for the triumphant final return of the motto theme.
Cockaigne, too, is an invigorating delight, with glints of Elgarian humour at so many stages. The lasting impression for me is of a conductor with an intelligent, informed but deep love of this music. The recording is beautifully suited to both performances – the entry of the organ in Cockaigne has rarely sounded so luscious. Strongly recommended.