ELGAR: Symphony No. 2; Carissima; Mina; Chanson de Matin – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./Vasily Petrenko – Onyx Classics

A very worthwhile addition to the Elgar resurgence.

EDWARD ELGAR: Symphony No. 2; Carissima; Mina; Chanson de Matin – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./Vasily Petrenko – Onyx Classics ONYX4165, 69:44 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] (3/24/17) ***1/2:

Sir Edward Elgar wrote two symphonies, relatively late in life and they have a long history of fairly sparse performance. Some critics and some audiences considered the works a bit out of time against the modernist movements of the early twentieth century; by some accounts even a bit unexciting. Still others found the esteemed composer of choral works, anthems, marches and ceremonial music a slightly ‘uncomfortable’ symphonist. Once these symphonies were championed by but a few conductors, such as Boult and Beecham.

Yet they are wonderful pieces and their slightly reserved qualities and a sound that feels like that of an earlier generation is a remarkable and fairly moving symbol of the composer, himself. Elgar was – like many Brits – saddened and shocked seeing his country dragged violently into what would be two world wars and watched as the lifestyle of England, itself, had changed forever.

Yet, even Elgar’s disappointment at the lack of audience and critical enthusiasm for the Second Symphony would wane if he lived to see a bit of resurgence in these works. Certainly there are many very high quality renditions of the Second to pick from. In the fairly recent realm, I rather like those by Mark Elder and Iann Farrington (with Bournemouth Sym.) I have a fond spot for a couple of older and somewhat unexpected pleasantries such as the recordings of Andrew Davis and Andre Previn. This new one (and that of the first Symphony) with Vasily Petrenko is really quite good; and Petrenko  is – of course – not even a Englishman!

Petrenko is, however, a very skilled conductor and the Liverpool Philharmonic is a very fine orchestra! Tempi throughout Petrenko’s performance are a bit more pushed than what I am used to (especially in the opening Allegro vivace e nobilmente) but it does give the work a bit more urgency and excitement than one would think. I have heard versions of both Symphonies where the longing and melancholic quality of the music is given a nearly turgid treatment; not so here!  I like this version a great deal. I cannot honestly it is my new favorite or the one that any Elgar enthusiast should go acquire. However, it is well worth having.

The three little ‘morsels’ included on this recording – Carissima, Mina and the Chanson de Matin – are of a mixed variety of original instrumentation and derivation (such as Mina being written in homage to the composer’s dog). They are all pleasant curiosities but really not important in the big picture of Elgar’s work.

—Daniel Coombs

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