While the Brexit dividend has never existed and probably never will, the music of Elgar is enjoying a renaissance with Brits and non-Brits alike. The LSO’s current (very) mini-series with Sir Mark Elder includes the two completed Symphonies, long at the heart of his catholic repertoire. The orchestra was seated with that composer in mind: antiphonally placed violins, double basses hard left and cellos in the centre.
But we began with a rarity, what survives of Janáček’s incidental music for a Gerhardt Hauptmann play with a plot akin to Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Janáček was writing the music at the time of his death and two movements emerged half a century later with editorial help. Both sound fully characteristic, the first recalling The Cunning Little Vixen, the second more fragmentary and irregular in rhythm not quite as ‘finished’. Extreme Adès-like registrations are reminiscent of From the House of the Dead. Sir Mark introduced the work with attractive intimacy from a rostrum lacking the customary safety railing. The performance itself felt fresh and true with leader Carmine Lauri making something lovely of his impossibly high-lying solo.
Bartók, by contrast, was aiming at least in part for commercial success at the end of his life and the Third Piano Concerto, wonderful as it is, can sound insubstantial in the wrong hands. The cosmopolitan Swiss Francesco Piemontesi had his own mix of solutions, none of them noticeably Hungarian. Best was the relatively breezy and conventional account of the Finale. In the earlier movements if the aim was to integrate the solo line with that of the orchestra the ingredients didn’t quite add up. Piemontesi’s sonority was cool, lean and contained, the right-hand more strongly projected than the left (possibly a trick of the acoustic), the clarity sometimes undermined by an excess of pedal. The languid opening was slow enough to necessitate some awkward gear changes and throughout the customary snap and verve was underplayed in the interests of a more introverted legato.
Whether constrained by the length of 78rpm sides or genuinely reflecting an interpretative preference, Elgar’s recordings tend to move pretty swiftly. His First Symphony plays for forty-seven minutes. Elder’s 2002 Hallé recording lasts fifty-two. Now it is nearer fifty-seven. Despite his profound knowledge of this score, Elder’s honest, unsensational reading doesn’t entirely avoid the puddingy, generalised effect once habitually associated with this music. The Barbican acoustic proved, as so often, a bugbear, especially in the Finale where too much of the music is loud (which with the LSO means very loud) and Elgar’s “massive hope for the future” can seem a bit of a stretch in our own times.
Sir Mark began the Symphony strongly with an eloquent well-judged Andante, only partly undermined by the usual belated removal of coats and flicking of pages. Some conductors plunge into the main body of the movement with greater aplomb and project the Allegro with self-advertising energy. That is not his way. The whirlwind Scherzo came closer to throwing caution to the winds. Was it not quite together at the start (the down side of those divided violins)? Sustained and animated conversation from the couple behind dominated my personal sound-stage at that point. The Adagio was neither overly tragic nor merely tranquil. The eloquence was unforced and natural and the muted trombones did not disappoint which for many will have been enough. Those with memories of Sir Colin Davis’s more interventionist, equivocal approach may however have been left wanting more.