Elgar – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Froissart Overture; Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD179

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Andrew Davis’s second Elgar disc in this Signum series of live performances with the Philharmonia is as good as if not better than his first (Enigma, In the South, Serenade) and a great deal weightier, since the two symphonies are the pinnacle of Elgar’s musical thought.

They are superb performances, with plenty of electricity and sense of occasion, well deserving the enthusiastic audience applause. The sublime and tragic Larghetto of No. 2 in particular is wonderfully well-paced, with the poignant oboe countermelody at 7:16 perfectly integrated into the soundscape as a whole. 

If I don’t go on to recommend these versions whole-heartedly, it’s because there are so many contenders of equal, and some of superior, merit. Davis’s previous accounts of the symphonies with the BBCSO on Teldec are, I think, equally good.

And for all the fire and intelligence of these new interpretations with the Philharmonia there’s a slight beefiness, a bluntness or thickness of sound, that helps the big moments to come over with great force but is somehow at odds with the tense, sinewy, living-on-one’s nerves quality that Elgar himself always brought to his music. It suits Froissart, however, down to the ground, and it receives a sterling performance.

In many ways, Elgar’s own interpretations (now on Naxos) have never been surpassed, but the elderly sound, though very good for its time, cannot match modern rivals.

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The best No. 1’s to go for, in my view, remain Solti and the LSO (Decca) and Colin Davis’s truly outstanding version with the Dresden Staatskapelle (Profil), also a live performance though the cavernous Semperoper acoustic, which coarsens some climaxes, will not be to everyone’s taste, and Davis has become as vocal as Barbirolli, whose wonderfully expansive 1964 version of No. 2 with the Hallé still occupies a special place in my affections, as does Jeffrey Tate’s exceptionally powerful reading with the LSO (both on EMI). Calum MacDonald