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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 / Cello Concerto (Harrison, Elgar) (1927-28)
Elgar’s second recording of his Symphony No. 2, made only eighteen months after the previous, acoustic set had been released, coincided with the innovation of electrical technology and the opportunity to mark the composer’s seventieth birthday on 2nd June 1927. Both the Symphony and the equally famous recording of the Cello Concerto offer unique insights from being composer-conducted. The tumultuous energy of the opening of the symphony’s first movement, the refusal to indulge the second movement and Elgar’s natural command of the art of transition, so crucial in this of all his works, add significantly to the poignancy and emotional thrust of the work as a whole. Taken at a quicker pace than most modern recordings, the Cello Concerto is a far cry from the sentimental resignation frequently associated with it in recent times.
By David Denton
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 2 • Cello Concerto
No major large-scale work of Elgar's met with such a difficult public reception at its première than the Second Symphony in May 1911. The first performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham in 1900 had proved traumatic, mainly owing to the poor learning of the chorus, but as far as the composer was concerned, he knew his creation's true worth, famously quoting Ruskin's 'This is the best of me' on the score. The musical intelligentsia and public opinion of the time also quickly recognised it as such when better-prepared performances swiftly followed. Together with the Enigma Variations, the Violin Concerto and especially the First Symphony, given its première in 1908 and performed over a hundred times all over the world in its first year of existence, Elgar's music was carried forward throughout the first decade of the new century on a roll of seemingly unstoppable popularity both at home and abroad.
The birth of Gerontius, however, was as nothing compared to the bafflement with which the new Second Symphony was greeted. This time, the literary quotation appended to the score by Elgar, Shelley's 'Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!', struck a profoundly hollow knell of ironic truth for work and composer, and one from which it took both much longer to recover than the initial operational difficulties of Gerontius.
With the benefit of hindsight, both of Elgar's completed symphonies share an ability unerringly to tap the mood of their time, but whereas the First Symphony holds up an almost congratulatory mirror on the confidence of the age with a certainty of aspiration and brilliance of technique, only three years later the Second Symphony, in its public aspect at least, reflects the beginnings of the passing of that age. The opening movement almost out-climaxes the prevailing mood of its predecessor's finale, but already Elgar's self-declared 'malign influence', an almost impossibly high cello melody in the sinister episode at the heart of the movement, can be heard stalking the seemingly boundless energy of the main ideas. The worm continues to turn and reappears at significant points in various ingenious guises. It serves as the key to the barely concealed personal face of the work, which increasingly seems more to do with doubt, insecurity and unease. Nothing is quite what it seems – the second movement's elegy for the recently deceased king has its true source in an expression of grief for Elgar's great friend Rodewald, who died back in 1903. The skipping pastoral whimsy of the third movement is interrupted with the 'malign influence' music from the first movement at terrifying full tilt, while the finale remains genial and contained in comparison with the opening movement, until the Spirit of Delight theme emerges as the oddly unfulfilled agent of nostalgia and regret in the coda. This symphony's mirror reflects conflicts of opposites, both public and private, with vehemence, uncertainty and an unresolved sense of paradox that is far more enigmatic than anything in the composer's earlier Variations. The music poses far more questions than answers and the audience, only three years away from catastrophe, did not like or maybe even understand the discomfiture it induced.
It took a further decade until after the First World War, the death of Carice, Elgar's wife and muse, and the enticement of the composer into the recording studio for a reassessment of the symphony to begin. Elgar had only recorded the work three years before in March 1924, allied to its revival at a series of Queen's Hall Symphony Concerts, but this was still using the acoustic process, which could only accommodate a much reduced, string section of just twelve players. The coincidence of the innovation of electrical technology and the opportunity for a major new recording tribute with a full string section to mark the composer's seventieth birthday on 2 June 1927 prompted a decision to re-record with the London Symphony Orchestra only eighteen months after the previous set had been released. This was both an extraordinary and gratifying vote of confidence in the symphony itself as well as the start of a long and productive association with an orchestra with which he had always held a special relationship. Also rather coincidentally, listening to test pressings of his previous recording project at the time of working on the symphony was proving especially frustrating for the composer. Excerpts from his performance of The Dream of Gerontius recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1927 were beset with a level of audience noise that, especially in the Prelude, played havoc with what could be satisfactorily released. Even now, Elgar must have felt still bedevilled by these two potentially problem children. In the event, the new recording of the symphony was achieved in a single day, although a separate session to improve the start of the third movement was made after the birthday release of the original set of discs and incorporated into subsequent pressings.
The sense of vindication from his own recordings of the symphony combined with enthusiastic promotion from Adrian Boult and others taking up the work in the 1920s must have been heart-warming. Whether it was a sympathetic olive branch to the ailing composer or not, even as late as early 1934, when Elgar was mortally ill, his staunch producer, Fred Gaisberg, was still trying to coax him back to the studio with yet another recording of the symphony, apparently a serious proposition. It was not to be.
This equally famous recording of the Cello Concerto, an epigrammatic and concise summation that answers many of the questions posed by the Second Symphony, was also not its first by these artists. The première in 1919 had been given by the cellist Felix Salmond, but the composer/soloist mix had not been a great success. Beatrice Harrison was the talented younger sister of the violinist May Harrison and she came highly recommended to Elgar by Landon Ronald following performances he had given with them of the Brahms Double Concerto. Many days were spent working with the composer to such a successful degree that an acoustic recording was made as early as December 1919. Once again the restrictions of the process meant that a very small string section was used, but even worse were the disfiguring cuts imposed on the music. Intriguingly, there was a tradition at the time to use a contrabassoon to reinforce the bass line, an instrument not in Elgar's scoring for the concerto, but one that was retained for the electric remake in 1928 with a clearly audible and telling contribution.
Both symphony and concerto offer unique and ample insights from being composer-conducted. The tumultuous energy of the opening of the symphony's first movement, especially the most sensitively controlled fluctuations of tempo (not always at one with his own published directions), remains unmatched, while the refusal to indulge the second movement and the fulsome coda to the finale add significantly to the poignancy and emotional thrust of the work as a whole. The art of transition, so crucial in this of all his works, has rarely been attended to with such innate care and natural refinement. Similarly in the concerto Elgar's brusqueness with the opening flourish of the finale is as characterful as it is shocking, potently drawing a parallel with the music with which Prince Hal dismisses Falstaff in the composer's still much undervalued symphonic study, even more so when it recurs at the close of the work to dismiss the soloist's final pleas. This resounds as music of uncompromising rejection rather than just the sentimental resignation more frequently associated with it in recent times. What a privilege that, after nearly a century, we can still learn from the composer's own realisations of two of his most challenging and personally revealing works.
The transfers for all items were made from British HMV shellac discs. The first side of the Scherzo of the Second Symphony was remade three months after the initial session (and after the recording had been released) because producer Fred Gaisberg was unhappy with "foreign noises" in the matrix (at several points during the side, it sounds as though someone's shoe was hitting a wooden box), and Elgar welcomed the chance to clean up some untidy passagework. The low-frequency thumps heard occasionally in the last movement of the Cello Concerto are inherent in the original recording, and are not a function of defects in the shellac pressings.
Edward Elgar conducts Edward Elgar
Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op. 63
Recorded 1 April (movt 1, 2, 4) and 15 July (movt 3) 1927 in Queen's Hall, London
Matrices: CR 1268-1, 1269-1A, 1270-1, 1271-1A, 1272-2, 1273-1, 1274-1A, 1275-2 (for movt 3), 1276-1A, 1277-1, 1278-1 and 1279-1
First issued on HMV D 1230 through 1235
Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op. 63: III. Rondo (to cue 116); first take
Recorded 1 April 1927 in Queen's Hall, London
Matrices: CR 1275-1. First issued on HMV D 1233
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Recorded 23 March and 13 June 1928 in Kingsway Hall, London
Matrices: CR 1754-2A, 1755-2, 1756-6A, 1757-5A, 1758-1 and 1759-2
First issued on HMV D 1507 through 1509
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ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 / Cello Concerto (Harrison, ...