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Elgar: Symphony No. 2;
 Serenade for Strings

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Elgar Symphony No. 2; Serenade for Strings
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5197 (hybrid CD/SACD) 66:42 mins


Elgar wrote that he had ‘written out my soul’ in the Second Symphony, and there is probably no richer and more complicated self-portrait in all his output. And there’s the problem for the interpreter: to make as much as possible speak for itself – including the riddles and contradictions – while keeping a sense of the Symphony as one great, unified outpouring.

Edward Gardner does this stunningly well: if anything, better even than in his fine account of the First Symphony. From the wonderful lyrical springboard opening right through to the final slow fade there’s a singing line that rises, falls and snakes its way through everything. Even with the start of the finale – the point when the tension often sags in performance – it isn’t long before we’re back in the swing of things. The final return of the ‘Spirit of Delight’ theme is a haunting ambiguous apotheosis, at once radiant sunset and deepening darkness. If that suggests that telling detail is sacrificed to higher purpose, the opposite is true. The solo oboe’s lonely lamentation amid the funeral pomp of the Larghetto, the eerie sensual shadow-play of the first movement’s ‘malign influence’ section, the exquisite passing ‘Windflower’ phrases on the Rondo – all these linger in the memory too.

The Serenade for Strings here reminds one how much more there is to this piece than an engaging miniature. The recordings are ideally suited to Gardner’s approach: warm-toned, but clear, so that all the strands and facets in Elgar’s complex orchestral texture are clear without being brought analytically forward.


Stephen Johnson