CD of the Week – Elgar Conducts Elgar
Elgar Conducts Elgar
Music & Arts
The music of Edward Elgar is a fixture in England and a passing fancy elsewhere.
Local familiarity breeds complacency and confusion. Every British conductor thinks he conducts Elgar within ‘the tradition,’ yet few agree on the essentials. Was Elgar a social climber or critical outsider, quintessentially English or aspirationally European, progressive or reactionary? And where do performances of Elgar by great interpreters from Mahler and Toscanini to Monteux and Abbado fit within that tradition?
Elgar was himself a capable conductor and the obvious place to start is with his own recordings. Made mostly in the scratchy acoustic era, they have been issued in many unsatisfactory transfers. The present set is copied from Elgar’s personal record collection and the sound, while distracting at first, gives an intense proximity to the source. After a few minutes, you do feel as if the composer is in the room.
That impression proves invaluable first in such rarities as the 1916 recording of the violin concerto with a slightly uncertain Marie Hall, favoured over the famous 1932 sessions with Yehudi Menuhin, and the 1925 version of the 2nd symphony, crisper than a lugubrious electrical version. The Sea Pictures with Leila Megane (whatever became of her?) are painted with a Debussian sensitivity for light and shade.
Elgar’s tendency as a conductor is to dwell on the beauties he makes, never wasting a good tune but at the same time, not allowing the pulse to drag into sentimentality. I doubt I have heard a more seductive performance of In the South, or a more rousing one of Cockaigne. In the 1914 take of the first Pomp and Circumstance march, the tempo has a slow, troubling solemnity which builds, bar by bar, into a hymn that could never be recognised as celebrating empire or war.
Elgar, in his own hands, is a far more complex creator than generally perceived and this set in an indispensable reference volume for anyone who thinks they know how his music should go. Test yourself against the master: you may well be sent back to the drawing board.
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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.