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ClassicsOnline Home » ELGAR, E.: Symphony No. 1 / Falstaff (London Symphony, Elgar) (1930-1932)
Before its sensational première in 1908, Hans Richter, the work’s dedicatee and first conductor, acclaimed Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 as ‘the greatest symphony of modern times’. Although Falstaff is often treated merely comically, Elgar’s virtuosic tone poem presents him and Prince Hal with a psychological insight truly worthy of Shakespeare. On these historic and thrillingly realized recordings, made between 1930 and 1932, there really is no match for the composer’s insight and instinctive way with his own works, especially when conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he had been principal conductor from 1911 to 1913.
By David Denton
There has an incredible amount of nonsense written claiming that Elgar’s fast tempos were the result of the short disc sides onto which he was recording. Such conjecture can be shown as worthless, many of his most mercurial tempos being coming on disc sides that were underused. Though he was seventy-three when he made this recording of the First Symphony, it is a very youthful, flexible and vigorous approach, never, even in the slow third movement, assuming the nostalgic mood that later brought a totally different approach from Barbirolli in his iconic discs with the Hallé. There is certainly plenty of swagger and Elgar received the most enthusiastic playing from the London Symphony. Ironically it is another Naxos release from the BBC Philharmonic, with George Hurst conducting, that presents us with an almost identical account that has the advantage of modern sound. Elgar’s approach to Falstaff was in the style of a Richard Strauss tone poem, the pictures of the amorous Knight clearly detailed and sympathetic to the character. Those famous orchestral snores are not exaggerated as is common today, yet the final death scene is uncommonly moving. The same coupling of these early 1930s recordings has already appeared, but I like this transfer where no attempt is made to enhance the sound. It is simply presented as clean as possible from the surface defects that were on the original masters. A ‘must have’ for the multitude of Elgar admirers, and at a very low price.
Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Symphony No. 1 • Falstaff, Op. 68
The Symphony No.1 was the zenith of Elgar’s compositional career. It was also the major landmark of the genre in the Great Britain of 1908, potentially retaining its position a full century later. Notwithstanding the fingerprints of distinction stamped on the Enigma Variations nearly a decade earlier, in the realms of purely orchestral music and the symphony in particular, for those weaned on homegrown Stanford and Parry, this work came as a lightning bolt. It instantly consolidated Elgar’s reputation as one of international stature, comparable to that of Richard Strauss and openly acknowledged as such by the German composer himself.
The acorn from which the symphony grew was planted as far back as the 1890s when Elgar was inspired by General Gordon, a paragon of military prowess, limitless energy, firm resolve and staunch religious conviction—everything a composer could wish for in terms of heroic musical substance. Apart from a few sketches, however, nothing concrete was set down, but after 1903 Elgar began confiding to his music editor, August Jaeger, that although the idea of a symphony possessed him, he could not write it down. A significant catalyst was his admiration and friendship for the great conductor Hans Richter, who despite all the traumas of the première of The Dream of Gerontius in 1900 had salvaged matters in the face of huge adversity. Richter remained one of the composer’s staunchest advocates, a musical epitome of Gordon, and very specifically from an early stage the unquestioned dedicatee of the symphony still cooking.
Even then, nothing really substantive got underway until 1908. With his large-scale oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom complete, Elgar’s inspiration suddenly became unfettered from a set text and he went at the symphony with a burning will and creative release. In an astonishing time-frame for composer, publisher and conductor the symphony was written between June and September and had its première with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 3 December with a subsequent performance in London’s Queen’s Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra just four days later, both conducted by Richter.
Richter’s indelible statement about ‘the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not just in this country’ has resounded to the echo ever since, and the subsequent excess of a hundred performances in the symphony’s first year of existence remains unprecedented. Two statements made by Elgar himself are even more noteworthy. The first about symphonic form in general was given in a lecture at Birmingham University in 1905—‘I hold that the symphony without a programme is the highest development of art’; the second in a letter to fellow composer Walford Davies specifically about the First Symphony—‘There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future’. Here lie the keys not only to the success of the First Symphony, but also the subsequent catharsis of the première of the Second, which followed hot on its heels, compelled into existence in no small measure owing to the confidence engendered by the reception of its predecessor.
For all the perceived abstraction and objectivity of the composer’s notion of ‘a wide experience of human life’, the First Symphony expresses this in a notably more intense and personal manner than in any of his preceding works. Matched with vaulting progress of symphonic form, thematic development and orchestral technique, ‘masterpiece’ is writ large upon the score. The boost to his confidence encouraged by the success of this level of self-exposure in a major work led Elgar down even more intimate and revelatory paths in its successor. The Second Symphony, however, baffled the 1911 audience, demonstrating that any remnants of the previous ‘massive hope in the future’ were already fundamentally misplaced. The composer suddenly came face to face with the crisis of realisation that he had rapidly become out of kilter with the times, his audience seemed removed at a stroke. The result was a recurrence of the old self-doubts, creative blocks and a retrenchment to tried and trusted compositional formulas.
Composed in 1913, when artistic alienation had bitten deep and hard, and with tensions fast approaching breaking point on the world stage, the precisely designated Symphonic Study ‘Falstaff’ is the impeccably and brilliantly crafted smokescreen masking its composer’s own disillusionment. In a technically virtuosic depiction of Sir John from Shakespeare’s history plays, not The Merry Wives of Windsor, Elgar returned to closely observed character portraiture familiar from the Enigma Variations. This time, however, the subject is fictional and allied to a more graphic series of adventures, interludes and epilogue akin to that which befalls another disillusioned old knight, the Don Quixote of Richard Strauss’s tone poem of 1897. Significantly, the Don’s rejection and withdrawal bask nostalgically in Strauss’s most rosy-hued and wish-fulfilled comfort-zone. In total contrast, Falstaff’s peremptory final dismissal comes with the sharpest of public stings and bleakest abandonment.
Every picture tells a story—the detailed analytical essay that Elgar wrote for the first performance and then sanctioned for publication with the score does not tally with his declared non-programmatic symphonic principle quoted above, nor does his declaration to Landon Ronald, the dedicatee and conductor of the first London performance of Falstaff, that the work is the best thing he has done, ring with total conviction, especially as, fortunately unsuspected by the composer himself, Ronald admitted to being baffled by the piece. An interesting meeting occurred with Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, in the Langham Hotel in 1931 just after the recording. Elgar’s attention was drawn by a miniature score of his First Symphony in Fenby’s pocket. However he asked Fenby whether he knew Falstaff, which he did and indeed much admired. This immediately prompted a declaration from the composer that it was ‘his best work’.
With discerning foresight, it was the critic Ernest Newman, who caught the reality of Elgar’s situation when he wrote in 1913: ‘I doubt whether any two successive symphonies by any other composer show so great an intellectual growth, so great a deepening of the man’s whole nature, and so great a development of musical feeling and technique as are visible between these two symphonies of Elgar. It is because he is now living on a psychological plane higher than any other English composers have ever touched that his Second Symphony is beyond the popular grasp at the moment’. Just a few weeks after this he wrote of Falstaff: ‘The style of the score shows us in many places quite a new Elgar, and one that the public used to the older Elgar will not assimilate very easily’.
When Elgar came to record and sometimes re-record a substantial portion of his output with the advent of electric recording in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was returning to old works from the perspective of even more bitter experience of a much-changed world and no major new works of his own since the Cello Concerto of 1919. Like all great, intuitive recording producers, Fred Gaisberg knew when the time was ripe. There really is no match for the composer’s insight and instinctive way with his own work, especially when conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, of whom he had been principal conductor from 1911 to 1913.
Apart from some retouching early the next year, this recording of Falstaff was set down at the inauguration of HMV’s new Abbey Road Studios in November 1931 and there are no chinks in anyone’s armour, the composer’s protective mask is impermeable and the work’s technical mastery thrillingly realized by the orchestra. Much the same can be said of the First Symphony, but come those special moments where the soul is laid bare, particularly the serene close of the Adagio, it is lit by cool, undeniably beautiful objectivity rather than honest inner revelation—very similar to the stance adopted more generally by Richard Strauss when performing his own works. It would be interesting to know whether Elgar would have conducted these passages in the same way twenty years earlier, when the work was new. It was left to succeeding generations of interpreters to unravel the ambiguities and re-engage with some of the personal and private substance that Elgar possibly ended up fighting shy of in his own music.
The present transfers were made using the best portions of two 78 rpm pressing copies for each set. The CEDAR-2 declicking module was employed both to eliminate pops and clicks as well as to tame the crackle inherent in the original British HMV shellac discs.
Edward Elgar conducts Edward Elgar
Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55
Recorded 20–22 November 1930 in Kingsway Hall, London
Matrix nos.: Cc 20675-1, 20676-1, 20677-2, 20682-2, 20683-2, 20684-2, 20685-2, 20686-2, 20687-1, 20688-2
First issued on HMV D 1944 through 1949
Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 33:07
Recorded 11 and 12 November 1931 and 4 February, 1932 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrix nos.: 2B 2011-1, 2012-2, 2013-2, 2014-1, 2017-1, 2018-1, 2019-1 and 2020-1
First issued on HMV DB 1621 through 1624
London Symphony Orchestra • Edward Elgar
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Special thanks to Nathan Brown and Charles Niss for providing source material
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ELGAR, E.: Symphony No. 1 / Falstaff (London Symph...