ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major – Staatskapelle Berlin/ Daniel Barenboim – Decca

Daniel Barenboim revisits the Elgar Symphony No. 1 with fertile and heroic results. 

ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55 – Staatskapelle Berlin/ Daniel Barenboim – Decca 478 9353, 51:26 (3/11/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Sometimes lauded as “England’s first symphony,” the 1908 Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major of Sir Edward Elgar found an early acolyte in conductor Hans Richter, who saw in the music a more cosmopolitan voice than had been the wont of similar efforts from Stanford, Sullivan and Parry.  For Elgar himself, the model of Brahms – especially his F Major Symphony – stood as a pinnacle of excellence in ‘absolute music,’ a genre specifically avoiding any sense of a ‘program’ in the manner of Richard Strauss.  It seems small wonder that for Barenboim – who has traversed this music prior with different orchestras – should have been influenced by his own Brahms experience – having collaborated with that other Elgar maestro, Sir John Barbirolli, in their Brahms concertos inscribed for EMI.

The present recording of the Elgar First Symphony (19-21 September 2015) finds Barenboim and ensemble in an expansive, luxurious mode, opening the famous “noble and simple” motto theme – the germ cell of the unfolding work – with loving, tender care.  Athletic confidence in the ‘Victorian frame of mind’ soon alternates with moments of fleeting caprice and bewildering anxiety, much in D Minor. Moments of pastoral serenity clash with portents of spiritual confusion.  Yet, the mood of the first movement softens by various degrees – including Elgar’s utilizing only the last stands of the string players – to effect a kind of hopeful gloaming in the coda.

The second movement, Allegro molto, wanders into an antagonistic mode in F-sharp Minor. The buzzing, angry, perpetual-motion figures assume full battle dress. Suddenly, a light texture emerges in B-flat Major, “like something you hear down by the river,” quipped Elgar. Even the quick motions become more elfin, a la Mendelssohn.  The da capo brings the military energies upon us full throttle; and here, the motion resembles the Mahler Seventh, premiered the same year. The gossamer texture persists, happily, with strings, winds, and harps in idyllic array, despite the undercurrents of war. The motion slows down, allowing us to observe that, verbatim, the notes literally form the basis of the lovely Adagio.

Elgar imparts to his slow movement a particular richness, dividing his strings into nine parts and two alternating themes. Elgar subjects each of the two themes to variation form, the second, more ominous tune subsuming the cheery aspects of the first. Barenboim accents the autumnal beauty of the melodies, again reinforcing Elgar’s affinity for the Brahms conception of orchestral beauty of color. The sunny D Major may recall us more to the Brahms Second Symphony, especially as the scoring pits the horns and strings in fulsome harmony. Against the warbles of the winds, harp and strings, the tympani passes a threatening cloud in tandem with fine viola sound from the Staatskapelle Dresden. Midway through the music, the vista opens in a way that Beethoven and Mahler could appreciate, superimposing the competing themes without having lost the expansive, pantheistic vision.

In a subtle homage to Beethoven, Elgar has his last movement Lento – Adagio look backward at motifs from movement one, the processional theme, here in a more askew guise. An eerie opening phrase  glides to a clarinet solo prior to the actual Allegro whose impulses quite point to Brahms. The hasty, martial material enters into a period of considerable strife, with the Staatskapelle tympanist making his presence felt. Elgar’s capacity for counterpoint becomes fully engaged, and for a moment we can feel Wagner’s Meistersinger’s influence, although the opening bars too had suggested Wagner’s Siegfried.  Halfway through the movement the Elgar sense of idyll returns, once more in “noble” sentiments, and Barenboim has the Staatskapelle string and brass sonorities in epic scale. A series of upward scales and impulses ushers in a new sense of festive urgency, heroic, polyphonic, and exalted. The processional motif has become a full-fledged victory of a spirit wholly dedicated to a promising future.  The often gripping sonic image belongs to Recording Engineer Sebastian Nattkemper.

—Gary Lemco

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