CD No: DECCA 478 6677 Duration: 56 minutes Reviewed: July 2014
Daniel Barenboim conducts Elgar’s Second Symphony [Staatskapelle Berlin; Decca]
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to Edward Elgar’s music. During the 1970s he recorded numerous of his works with the London Philharmonic for CBS (now Sony Classical) and his return to the Second Symphony finds him in total command of a personal but idiomatic reading.
Here the Symphony (completed in 1911) opens with a great release of energy and very purposeful strides, a confident composer in full and virtuoso form, the Staatskapelle Berlin relishing and shining in music grand and wistful, sometimes retreating to deep privacy and then re-emerging in full public view with thrilling rides of passion. The music laments, too – the second movement – and spirals to a nightmarish onslaught – third – and, for all the pomp in evidence during the last, finally comes to resigned rest, the end of an era.
Barenboim conducts a wonderfully gripping performance – full of insight and character; spontaneity, too, for all that the preparation has been painstaking. Maybe he is too affectionate at times, too flexible, in the first movement, but it’s all very compelling and convincing, the orchestra at-one with the music and with its conductor, whose detailing of the orchestration is pristine and which has been captured in superbly rich and vivid sound. And, sonically, Barenboim’s placement of antiphonal violins (double basses on the left, behind the Firsts) is an aural plus-point, very much the arrangement that Elgar composed for.
Barenboim’s unfolding of the funereal second movement (Edward VII not forgotten, he had died in May 1910) is deeply felt and noble, intensely hushed and rising to a passionate climax – to which Barenboim is typically meticulous with dynamics. The mercurial scherzo goes like the wind, brought off with agility and quicksilver responses, builds to restless tumult (if slightly contained) and is paid-off with a scintillating coda. The finale – amiable, anguished, majestic and contemplative – initially finds Barenboim as an advocate on behalf of a positive Elgar before really digging in to his disquiet – and with a properly ‘long’ and searing trumpet crescendo (5’15-5’19). From a possible glamorous summation, the music then sinks to reverie – Barenboim finding a hitherto unsuspected connection to Richard Strauss’s earlier-written Ein Heldenleben – and he is also arrow-like to the core of Elgar’s soul.
There are a few rustles and noises-off to suggest this as a concert performance (although not claimed as such) yet overseen with the precision of studio sessions, and a desire to record in long takes, and then ‘tidied’ through sensitive post-production that retains wholeness and artlessness. The end result comes with the strongest possible recommendation – to committed Elgarians (no doubt already armed with recordings by the composer, Barbirolli, Boult, Colin Davis, Vernon Handley, Sakari Oramo and Leonard Slatkin, say) and audiophiles – and anyone who feels like taking the plunge: new Elgarians.