I started with In the South (placed second), a fiery and thrilling performance – vivid, warm, dramatic – the music’s leave taken from an Elgar family holiday to the Italian Riviera straddling the years 1903 and 1904. Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia Orchestra, identifying fully with Elgar’s Italian impressions, sweep it along with impetuosity and fervour yet without overlooking details. As contrast, when the ‘Canto popolare’ section is reached, introduced wistfully by a beautiful contribution on viola, we are bathed in night-time breezes and fragrances. Following this, musical reminiscence and the sensation of a splendid sunrise are projected with sensitivity and magnificence.
Symphony No.1 (completed in 1908) is given an expansive outing. For all that Pappano listened to Elgar’s own 1930 recording with the LSO, he hasn’t aped him, for this a deeply considered account full of personality and insight. The Santa Cecilia Orchestra had not programmed Elgar 1 since 1912. A century later its return to Rome courtesy of the Cecilians is a triumph.
What comes across most of all is how much love Pappano has for Elgar’s music; not that he smothers it but rather he identifies totally with it, inside and out, a passionate involvement. He may have had Elgar by his side when studying the score (so did Solti) but he has found his own way – and overall he takes fifty-five minutes to the composer’s forty-seven.
But that’s a statistic. What we get from Pappano is intense and vibrant, epic in many ways. The first movement is trenchant and flexible within a time-taken framework, a large-scale reading that is then contrasted by a driven Scherzo, yet yielding in more intimate moments, and even more elastic (very affecting, spot-on for me) as the Adagio is prepared for. Here the heart of the matter is reached, a wondrous view of this sublime music that goes off the radar in terms of transportation; Pappano’s tempo is daringly spacious, remarkably well sustained and not a second too long, and when the quiet interior of the music is reached (from 9:40, played so tenderly), well, words fail me – in the best possible way ... sheer wonderment.
The Finale wraps things up gloriously, through tenacity, panoramic vista and hard-won victory (like Brahms, Elgar didn’t find writing a First Symphony at all easy), and the Rome audience is enthusiastic.
The recorded sound – I would have liked some ambience before both pieces start, the illusion that the conductor is silently preparing to mould their respective beginnings – might be thought a little cramped, somewhat intimidating, but it is oh-so tangible, and certainly makes clear the wisdom of using antiphonal violins in this music, and the left-positioned double basses are particularly well captured, to give the performances a tremendously involving edge. Three concerts are dated for the Symphony, but I hear no joins. A commendation too for this release’s sponsor, and also for the Schumann, Mr Chapchal.