Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C minor, Op.68
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Edward Elgar
Symphony No.1 recorded 20-22 November 1930 in Kingsway Hall, London; Falstaff recorded 11 & 12 November 1931 and 4 February 1932 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No.1, London
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: March 2009
CD No: NAXOS HISTORICAL
Duration: 80 minutes
Sir Edward Elgar’s First Symphony had its first performance on 3 December 1908, played in the Free Trade Hall by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter. Richter had a very high opinion of the work, describing it as “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not just in this country”. Elgar’s wrote about its mood being “a massive hope in the future”; the esteem in which this work is held is undiminished.
Written in a relatively short time, albeit after much gestation, between June and September 1908, the four movements are strong in ideas and expert in their development. Listening to the composer’s recording of the work, its first, one notices the opening Andante is quicker than most have taken it since, and the ebb and flow even within a bar is achieved with consummate naturalness. Elgar’s control of rubato and tenuto is superb, the London Symphony Orchestra (of which Elgar had once been Principal Conductor, between 1911 and 1913) responding with remarkable accuracy. The end of the finale’s development is another high point, the reminiscing of material achieved with great success. With Elgar’s trusted W. H. (Billy) Reed leading, the LSO, recorded in the comfortable acoustics of Kingsway Hall, reaches great heights in its performance.
Five years later after the symphony, Elgar wrote Falstaff, a ‘symphonic study’, and his use of more chromatic writing is striking. The scenes change quite rapidly, the moods ranging from quiet gentleness and contemplation in the interludes to more energetic calls to arms. The composer achieves continuity despite the constraints of recording on wax.
This recording of Falstaff was the first to be made in Abbey Road studios. The event was captured on film with a well-known photograph of Elgar on the podium, Reed leading, George Bernard Shaw and Sir Landon Ronald, the work’s dedicatee, sitting on the steps leading up to the stage, and a host of dignitaries to the right. The first four sides were made with just a single re-take needed for side two. The next day, the cameras caught Elgar conducting “Land of Hope and Glory” (Pomp and Circumstance March No.1), Falstaff continued. After a finishing-off session in early 1932, the recording was complete, and the result is a reading that stands up successfully to comparison with modern ones.
Elgar’s recordings have been fortunate in their issues over the years. Restored for release on LP by Anthony Griffith they still sounded well, and for EMI’s Elgar Edition of 1992, further improvements in noise-reduction techniques resulted in a fine mastering of the symphony by Michael Dutton and of Falstaff, again by Anthony Griffith. Mark Obert-Thorn’s mastering for Naxos is most welcome, especially as he has achieved at least equally good results. Some listeners may very well detect a little more fidelity in the higher frequencies and a little more of the acoustic of the two locations. These recordings belong in the collection of every lover of Elgar’s music.