WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in A flat
PERFORMER: SWR RSO/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.000
This is by no means a ‘traditional’ performance, if by that term one means the Boult/Barbirolli interpretations, different though they were from each other and from Elgar’s own recording. The fierce drumrolls while the march motto theme is first played are nearer to Elgar’s interpretation, in fact, and the tempi, also like the composer’s, are brisk without becoming headlong. The first movement is much the best feature of Norrington’s interpretation. He seems to be making a point of how innovative its structure is and how, each time the motto theme returns like a ghost, pianissimo, it sets off a new phase of development. In spite of a rather dry recorded sound, the playing here achieves real bloom, notably in the rapt coda.
The second movement has Tchaikovskian brilliance, but Norrington rather brushes over the magical trio (‘like something you hear down by the river,’ Elgar said). The transition to the Adagio is beautifully managed, but the performance of this movement is perhaps the disc’s most controversial element. The vibrato-less string playing in some episodes gives the archaic impression of a consort of viols, wholly at odds with the poetic nature of the music. The finale cracks along at a spanking pace until the ghost reappears to herald the gloriously expansive version of the movement’s main theme. Thenceforward the performance lacks the requisite panache.
Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, in a respectable enough performance, is the rather curious fill-up to what in any case is not exactly generous value. Why not Cockaigne? Michael Kennedy