Elgar Lite from Gardner and the BBC

Review by: David Hurwitz

Elgar2

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

It is an invariable rule that every self-respecting British label has to record the Elgar symphonies (and other stuff) every few years, just to try to convince the rest of the world that this composer really matters. Of course, the rest of the world seldom notices or cares, but I suppose it’s the thought that counts. This is Chandos’ at least third go-round with the Elgar symphonies, and none of them has been wholly successful. First we had Gibson, enthusiastic but hobbled by what was then an inferior Scottish orchestra. Next came Bryden Thomson, slow, soft-edged, and bloated.

Now we have just the opposite to Thomson. Edward Gardner offers a lean, light-textured, curiously small-scale interpretation of the epic Second Symphony. At first, the zippy opening tempo and bouncy rhythms sound refreshing, but as soon as the music slows and quiets down for the first movement’s nocturnal development episode, we realize that Gardner has not provided sufficient contrast to carry us through the more reflective bits. The music wanders, and the ensuing climaxes lack the necessary punch, failing to build with the right sort of rhetorical emphasis.

The second-movement funeral march probably comes off best, if only because its mood remains more or less consistently sustained throughout, but the central climax of the Rondo isn’t nearly as crushing as it needs to be–there’s no excuse for that–and the finale just goes nowhere. The elegiac coda sounds interminable here, and I’m not sure exactly why. Again, it seems to be a function of the quicker bits not providing enough contrast to justify the slower ones. If Gardner had only kept up his initial premise consistently we might have had something–sort of a more buoyant answer to Solti, perhaps, or something like that. As it is, I would call this performance a failed experiment.

The coupled Serenade for Strings is okay, but it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for this piece of sentimental Victorian fluff. Devoted Elgarians may bridle at this assessment, but there it is.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 2: Mackerras (Decca); Slatkin (RCA)


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