May 19, 2024

Elgar: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (CD Review)

 by Ryan Ross 

(CD1) Symphony No. 1 in A-Flat; (CD2) Symphony No. 2 in E-Flat. Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Hallé. Hallé CD HLD 7564


Every time I listen to these magnificent works I think, “how in the world are they not more popular outside of the United Kingdom?” They have everything: great tunes, high drama, and breathtaking emotional range (to name a few). They are two crowning achievements of a patriotic composer who nonetheless had trouble fitting in with an elite establishment. And despite owing much to Continental European models, they somehow sound thoroughly English – which makes it ironic that my favorite recordings are by non-British conductors. I regret to report that this pattern holds for the present offering by Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra (apparently, it’s just called “Hallé?”). Because what these multifaceted works require to come off best is a strong motion that Elder doesn’t exercise, and a conviction that he doesn’t quite demonstrate. 


The First Symphony receives the better of the two performances. Elder’s leisurely tempo works for the opening motto theme, marked Andante nobilmente e semplice. The ensuing Allegro is not bad, exactly, but it feels a bit creaky. This is a large movement with many different parts. The main trouble is that Elder “stops to smell the roses” too pointedly and too often. The score’s many nooks, crannies, subtleties, and emotions draw him in at the expense of other considerations. The conductor should keep things moving, but he seems hesitant to do so. The second and fourth movements fare better in this respect, but even there I’m missing some “snap” and polish in the direction and playing respectively. There’s a sweep that this work (and its brother) should have, but I don’t feel it in this rendition. 


These problems are more pronounced with the Second Symphony. From the get-go, it’s just too sluggish. We don’t really get the score-directed Allegro vivace for the first movement, at least not initially and consistently. Too often the musical narrative just sort of shambles along. More seriously, I’m missing the nobilmente both here and elsewhere. Even when the tempo temporarily catches up in places, the various figures and articulations seem oddly muted. The grand climax at the end of the second movement is almost convincing, but somehow it just sounds tired instead of glorious. The third movement is marked Rondo (Presto), but at 8:48 it clocks in at around a minute slower than I think it should. There ought to be a lusty élan here, but it’s absent; instead, the motives/ideas sound limp. The finale fares a bit better, but again that maestoso could be more maestoso-ish, at the climaxes especially. 


These symphonies’ markings betray Elgar’s earnestness: nobilmente, maestoso, molto. This was a man of passion who substantially bought into the nationalist stuff that makes many contemporary critics and academics cringe. (The Second Symphony’s inscription reads as follows: “Dedicated to the memory of His late Majesty King Edward VII. This Symphony, designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute, bears its present dedication with the gracious approval of His Majesty the King.”) The music is not only about Elgar’s physiognomy and experience, with their various highs and lows; it’s also about his love for a great nation in which he glumly perceived the first signs of a long decline. Performers may not need to subscribe to all of this in order to create fine interpretations, but I believe they simply must capture a certain spirit and sincerity. To my ears, the all-British performances that do so, and still capture the other elements well, are Boult/LPO on Warner (Catalogue No. 3821512) and Mackerras/LSO (Argo 4308352). But my favorite recordings of all are the colorful, energetic ones by Georg Solti/LPO (Decca 4438562) and Leonard Slatkin/LPO (RCA 82876603892). These both feature foreign conductors leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra. As a case study, compare Elder and the Hallé here to Solti in the second movement of the First Symphony. The tempi are similar, but behold the latter interpretation as it crackles and thrills in a way that the former just does not. (I often find this to be true of Elder’s other work as well, for example his Vaughan Williams and Sibelius symphonies). Elgar’s symphonic music deserves much wider and more robust respect. I hope that whoever records it next is a more ideal advocate.

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa