The Kingdom, Op.51 – Prelude
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Flemish Radio Orchestra
Recorded 11-15 September 2006 in Studio 4, Flagey, Brussels
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: January 2008
CD No: GLOSSA
GCDSA 922204 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 58 minutes
Martyn Brabbins’s unstuffy treatment of the symphony’s opening paragraph sets the template for his clean-heeled, linear interpretation. Architecturally speaking, Brabbins certainly has the measure of this mighty symphonic edifice. The opening movement is especially impressive; indeed, the various sightings of the motto theme within Elgar’s endlessly absorbing ground-plan are uncommonly well integrated, making for a satisfyingly whole conception firmly in the Boult/Handley mould.
When it comes to sheer temperament and communicative ardour, though, Brabbins scores less highly in my book and his comparatively lean, no-nonsense approach will not, I fancy, be to everyone’s tastes. Both the scherzo and finale are bluff and breezy almost to a fault (the former’s entrancing trio section, which Elgar once memorably likened to “something you hear down by the river”, exhibits too little in the way of fresh-faced poetry and fantasy), while intensity-levels in the rapt Adagio are disconcertingly low (for me, at any rate, the tingles never materialised). That said, in the sublime transition between the second and third movements, you do have to admire the way Brabbins sticks resolutely to what’s actually marked in the score (i.e. no spurious ritardando necessary!).
The hard-working Flemish Radio Orchestra responds with heaps of spirit and no mean discipline but its strings are frustratingly wanting in tonal clout and corporate muscle – it’s all a far cry from the lustrous sheen and heart-warming glow of the London Philharmonic in full cry on Solti’s thrillingly involving 1972 Decca recording. Mind you, the recording doesn’t help either. The slightly hollow studio acoustic is not of the most alluring and the sound overall is a little synthetic, with a glassy top end and tuttis which are not only inclined to blur but also fail to expand as they might.
The symphony is preceded by a conspicuously eloquent account of the ‘Prelude’ to the 1906 oratorio “The Kingdom”, and I should also add that our very own Colin Anderson pens a typically thoughtful and illuminating booklet essay – though the less said about the bonkers artwork the better! Die-hard/completist Elgarians may wish to investigate, but I’d advise an element of caution: this one’s definitely a case of ‘try before you buy’.