ELGAR: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55 – London Philharmonic Orch./ Sir Georg Solti – HDTT HDCD371, 58:12 [avail. in various formats incl. hi-res from www.hideftapetransfers.com] ****:
Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997), besides his long association with operatic repertory, cultivated a flair for large orchestral scores, particularly those of Mahler, R. Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, and compatriot Bartok. In 1972, Solti decided to approach the 1907-08 Symphony No. 1 of Edward Elgar; and to achieve a degree of “authenticity,” Solti examined the 1930s inscriptions by the composer of his own works, where Solti found he agreed with many of the composer-conductor’s decisions. Granted, the composer resorted to brisk tempos to satisfy the demands of the shellac technology of his era, but Solti seems to bask in an athletically propelled reading, crisp and unsentimental yet hefty in all parts.
Elgar conceived the Symphony not only as abstract, discursive music, but as a token of affection for conductor Hans Richter – after a generally disappointing rendition of The Dream of Gerontius – who would hail the work (in Manchester) as “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not only in this country.” Arthur Nikisch, leading the first performance in Leipzig, likened the work to “the Brahms Fifth.” Solti treats the “motto theme” first movement Andante. Nobilmente e semplice as a grand but active processional, eschewing “Edwardian” rhetoric in favor of an aggressive, propelled stance, with an abrupt D Minor shift (appassionato) that also indulges in bucolic rhapsodies that alternate duple and triple meters. If Boult and Barbirolli could be said to “coddle” this music, no such overly tender treatment marks this version.
The Allegro molto extends the dynamic, martial and set as a bustling, polyphonic scherzo in the key of F-sharp Minor. Solti highlights his LPO horns and tympani, but the violin and strings get to sing in the relaxed second subject, which Elgar characterized as “something we hear down by the river.” The violins hold the tonic as a means to modulate, without any break, to the Adagio movement, which upon close inspection turns out to be a variant of the scherzo’s music. Solti imbues the Adagio with a magisterial repose, almost a meditation in the noble spirit of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. The long, arched phrases breathe in a most compelling blend of winds and strings, only a step away from lovely Dvorak or Elgar’s own idol, Brahms. With three notes from the clarinet, this introspective music ends.
Like the first movement, the Lento – Allegro finale contains more tumult than the interior movements, opening with a rather veiled or haunted, Wagnerian character whose orchestration will later include English horn and two harps. A marching rhythm enters, then string canon, then a rolling, arched phrase that Elgar can convert to a chorale if so wishes. The military aspect of the music wins the day, with Solti’s clarion sound easily likening Elgar to Richard Strauss or the finale from the Brahms Third. Curiously, beyond the battles and gallops, the music turns back on itself as the orchestra sings out the “motto” tune from movement, now more nostalgically than ever! The music swells to an unambiguous victory march, highly syncopated and punctuated in colossal cadences, the sign of a noble resolve on the part of creator and his committed interpreter. A sonic spectacle on all counts.