Conducting Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony is a ‘big ask’ for even a seasoned maestro, it’s a musically and emotionally complex masterpiece, and as yet Nikolaj Znaider doesn’t have all the answers; and when we finally got started – Znaider quite rightly waited for the audience to settle (this happens quite often in Detroit following intermission) – he launched the work in rather too easy a fashion, hardly the ignited release of something pent-up, the music lacking a backbone before slowing rather too obviously for lyrical music and then speeding up to where he’d started. Znaider is no stranger to Elgar’s output having mastered the Violin Concerto some years ago (and recorded it with the late Sir Colin Davis) but this account of No.2, for all that he conducted from memory and there was a virtuoso response of the DSO, never quite got under its skin, not fuelled enough by deep passions and demons; one recalls Sir Adrian Boult’s melding of architecture and innate expression (letting the music speak for itself while fully appreciating what it is saying; and he recorded Elgar 2 five times).
Yet the funereal steps of the slow movement were well-conveyed with an ebb and flow of pacing and a rise and fall of tension that was convincing and eloquent across the whole, and Znaider ensured articulacy rather than speed in the next movement if without it exploding into the nightmarish proportions that Elgar surely intended at the midpoint, partly due to the relay’s dynamics not expanding enough, and the faster tempo for the concluding sprint was out of kilter with what had gone before. Similarly the swiftness for the seemingly amiable Finale glossed over possibilities and came across as a hasty imposition without the necessary conviction, and if later grandeur was pushed through then the closing end-of-an-era mists were sensitively attended to, fading into a long silence.
Having sidestepped a short opening work – as had happened in Berlin just earlier – a real pity when gems such as Oberon, Force of Destiny, and Merry Wives of Windsor, are now regularly overlooked (and those are the tips of a growing iceberg) to the extent that a generation of music-lovers and maybe musicians as well are losing touch with a range of choice repertoire – we got a Mozart Piano Concerto with a pared-down orchestra, strings on the thin-sounding side but aiding clarity and highlighting some expressive woodwind contributions. It was all very musical, not least from Saleem Ashkar whose technical fluency was admirable, but minor-key darker undercurrents were few and he romanticised Beethoven’s cadenza as to be somewhat ill-fitting, and the noisy pedal didn’t help. If his eyes never left the keyboard, my ears told the more-important story of these musicians’ connections, yet this one-size-fits-all account never really peered below the surface of the music, but it wasn’t superficial either, and Ashkar’s own cadenza for the Finale fell nicely into place.