Symphony No.3
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis
Recorded live on 13/14 December 2001, Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed: July 2002
Anthony Payne more than warrants his half of the billing given he had to compose much of the material and often had to second-guess Elgar as to where sketches were destined. “Elaboration on the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony”, although a bit of a mouthful and to the detriment of the living, breathing work that he has created, does indeed measure what Payne had to do. There was a time when he might not have got beyond making certain sections performable, a tantalising glimpse. Irrespective of how No.3 would have turned out from Elgar himself, it is Payne’s great achievement that the music sounds authentic. He contributes an article to the booklet.
Colin Davis and the LSO give us the third CD of ’Elgar 3’ following Andrew Davis’s pioneering account (NMC) and Paul Daniel’s Naxos taping. Davis’s version is a notable achievement even though the recording quality emphasises the brass at the expense of strings, the sound-picture somewhat cocooned. This does give a welcome tangibility – one hears Sir Colin’s vocalisations, detail is clear, yet there’s a lack of openness if not immediacy.
At the same price-point as Daniel’s, a fiver, I’m not sure that Davis’s CD isn’t the best of the three in terms of viewing of the music. Paul Daniel I find to be at arm’s length, and while seasoned Elgarian Andrew Davis conveys the excitement of a new discovery, as one hears other views of the music – mine include Ashkenazy and the Czech Phil (in Prague), Slatkin with the National Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras (New York and London respectively), and performances under Martyn Brabbins – one is conscious of interpretative differences, not least in speeds. Slatkin takes around 50 minutes, Ashkenazy about 54, while Brabbins and Davis are nearer to the hour.
Timings do not reveal the whole story. Whereas I recall Brabbins opting for magnificence, Davis’s equally broad rendition has an underlying impetus that drives the music on, thrillingly so in the first movement. To contrast such heraldry is the blissful second subject, most tenderly phrased by Davis, the exposition repeated as Elgar requested (although no doubt somebody will leave it out one day, which is all part of the music’s evolution).
While this first movement is strong and stirring, if a bit too pomp-like, it’s the middle movements that seem to me to have the best ideas. The ’Allegretto’, designated a scherzo but more a pastoral intermezzo, is delightfully bucolic if tinged with sadness, Davis eliciting very sensitive playing; how well he cues the burgeoning expression from 3’43”, the tempo ideal, the rise in emotional temperature organic. (I do wish though that Payne had used the tambourine less in this movement or edited Elgar’s scoring.)
The ’Adagio solenne’ is superbly done – solitary and blackly pessimistic, a haunting melody is kept under wraps, one within earshot but too secret to be shared. I think Davis has the measure of this elusive creation (just as Slatkin drives the first movement so successfully, the music on a knife-edge) – the composer withdrawn, the musical ideas fragmentary. Elgar is traversing new territory with thoughts half-remembered or half-formed, and his steps are fragile. Harmonically austere, with expression private and flickering, Davis sustains this extraordinary movement (with echoes of Puccini maybe in the descending bell-like motive from 5’57" and 12’43") by linking the threads to poignant effect.
Payne was given his stiffest obstacle by having no clue as to how Elgar would conclude the symphony. If the main ideas of the ’Finale’ can be a tad pedestrian – Davis overcomes this with some effective tempo shifts – Payne utilising ’The Wagon Passes’ from Elgar’s Nursery Suite for a leave-taking epilogue is a fair-enough solution. Davis gives the music nobility and, to me, suggests Elgar’s death-tinged fears, a ceremonial in which Elgar contemplates meeting his maker, achievements summed, infancy recalled as life extinguishes … Davis does these last rites wonderfully well.


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