Elgar: Symphony No. 2, Serenade for Strings (SACD)

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner

Following a highly-praised recording of Symphony No. 1 last year, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony present here an electrifying interpretation of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, with the addition of one of his most performed works: the Serenade for Strings.

Having now become experts in British repertoire with highly lauded series of Walton and Britten, they reveal all the aspects of Elgar’s masterpiece in this surround sound recording. Symphony No. 2 is richly orchestrated and skilfully constructed, drawing on hugely varied resources of harmony, rhythm and melody, and making considerable use of thematic transformation as a unifying technique.

While the Symphony No.2 is one of the greatest products of Elgar’s maturity, the Serenade in E minor for Strings is perhaps the most charming product of his youth. In this three-movement piece dominated by a deeply passionate Larghetto, the strings of the BBC Symphony superbly encapsulate all the emotions offered by this graceful work: tender, lyrical and intense.

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Elgar: Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63

Elgar: Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20

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Gardner's beautiful Edwardian panorama lacks drive



Edward Elgar's Second Symphony is a wonderful work, but tricky to perform. Parts of it are public proclamations, yet it often slips into moments of intimate repose. It is filled with those jagged Elgarian themes that build and subside. The musical and emotional contours of this work (lasting over 50 minutes) are of endless fascination, but the conductor has to ensure the symphony does not fragment into a series of episodes.

Gardner is a lucid conductor, very good at balancing orchestral textures; a skill that served him well in superb recordings of Walton, Łutosławski and Szymanowski. I have not heard his recording of Elgar's First Symphony, but with No. 2 I have to report some reservations. His strengths are present of course: the textures are laid out to create a sonic panorama, the orchestral players produce beautiful results, but something is missing: drive. Although it's over 40 years ago, I well remember when Georg Solti's Decca recording with the London Philharmonic appeared and blew away post-Edwardian torpor with its pulsating energy. You might say Solti gave Elgar the Bartók treatment; the LPO strings played for their lives. The strings are the driving force in this piece (as in most of Elgar's orchestral music), and in Gardner's recording they strike me as underpowered. String-driven surges, so inevitable also in Adrian Boult's recordings, hardly ever happen. Gardner is equally inclined to lose momentum in moments of repose. Quiet sections of the first and last movements hang fire; they are lovely, but you soon realise we have arrested our journey for too long in order to admire them.

These caveats may be associated with a sound problem. (What? A sound problem on a Chandos record?) Well, for me the orchestral sound never coheres. Everything is there, but each orchestral section is in a world of its own - for example, the terrifically present percussion in the scherzo (a movement that is otherwise rather bloodless in this performance). I suspect it may be because this is a hybrid SACD with 5-channel surround sound, and I listened to it in stereo. Undoubtedly it would be spectacular with sound coming at you from all five corners of the room, but as most of us stick to stereo (not having space or finance for three extra speakers) I think it is a valid point to bring up.

The Serenade for Strings is unproblematic, but still soft-edged. For the symphony I prefer Solti, Boult, or the under-appreciated Giuseppe Sinopoli, and I believe Barenboim's recent Berlin recording is a winner although I don't know it.