Elgar: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Cockaigne Overture. Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx 4145.

Yes, Elgar wrote more than the Violin and Cello Concertos, the Enigma Variations, and a series of marches. But, of course, you knew that. Especially if you are a classical music fan, or if you are English. Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was one of England's greatest and most-famous composers. On the current disc, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic present the first of Elgar's two symphonies, along with the Cockaigne Overture. The symphony can be pretty heady stuff, unless you already enjoy the pomp and circumstance of Elgar's marches, in which case you'll find yourself right at home with it. It's all very grand, very imposing, very Elgarian.

Anyway, Elgar wrote his Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55, in 1908, just a few years after he completed the first four of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and he apparently had plenty of pomp and circumstance left over for the symphony. In describing the music, Elgar said "There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future." So, yes, it is an optimistic work, full of noble ambition.

Maestro Petrenko's handling of the symphony is very optimistic and ambitious, indeed, although I confess while listening to it that I couldn't completely erase my own fondness for the recordings of my earlier days: Sir Adrian Boult's account with the London Philharmonic (EMI); Sir John Barbirolli's recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Sir Georg Solti's rendering with the London Philharmonic (Decca); and later recordings from Richard Hickox, Vernon Handley, and Mark Elder among others. By comparison, this new reading by Maestro Petrenko seems just a tad staid, reticent, less grand. But comparisons are sometimes deceiving, and certainly there is much to commend about Petrenko's performance.

The first movement alternates from the noble and processional to the simple and straightforward, and Petrenko does his best to make the transitions as seamless as possible. Still, he seems a bit reluctant to let loose, perhaps fearing that the music can too easily become bombastic if he does so. Nevertheless, he keeps tempos on the moderately brisk side, so the music flows effortlessly and eloquently along, ending in a proper tranquility.

The second-movement Allegro acts as a scherzo, which Petrenko plays with a vigorous, masculine security. Under this conductor, the music marches relentlessly forward, interrupted only briefly here and there by several kind of pastoral interludes, then back to its relentless martial attitude. Again, it's not easy to hold all this together without the pieces seeming disparate and even unhinged, but Petrenko again does his best, and his Liverpool players do an admirable job smoothly following his lead.

Vasily Petrenko
The Adagio that follows is a sort of replica of the preceding music but at a much slower pace. Here, Petrenko does, indeed, slow down, even to the point I thought a tad too much. Still, it makes for a pleasant, tranquil pause in the action.

Then we get the finale, which returns us to Elgar's alternating slow-fast-slow-fast design, with Petrenko handling the march segments with a fine gusto. At the conclusion, the conductor makes sure we understand Elgar's themes, as he re-emphasizes the pomp-and-circumstance elements of the music.

The coupling actually comes first on the disc, the Cockaigne Overture, so named because, as Elgar explained, "Cockaigne is the old, humorous (classical) name for London and from it we get the Cockney." However, the work doesn't really describe the London of Elgar's day (he premiered it in 1901) with any precision, nor did he intend it to be an accurate tone poem; in fact, Elgar had hardly spent much time in London at all. Instead, the score is more of a merry, energetic, effervescent romp through the city's streets as Elgar's rather optimistic mind envisioned the place. I rather enjoyed Petrenko's handling of the overture because he adds a light, fleet touch to the music that brings out its playful, even celebratory qualities.

Producers John Fraser (Symphony) and Andrew Cornall (Cockaigne) and engineer David Pigott recorded the music at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in July and September 2009. I'm not sure why it's taken so long for Onyx to release the disc. Whatever, the sound is warm and natural and moderately distanced rather than being anything close-up, bright, or edgy. It's also nicely centered left-to-right, with at least a modicum of orchestral depth and a decently robust dynamic range. A little hall resonance adds a bloom to the sound, too, making it fairly lifelike, though somewhat soft and not particularly transparent or impactful in any audiophile sense (except in parts of the overture, which sound more dynamic to me than the symphony).


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa