Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg – Prelude to Act I
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: January 2001
CD No: HANSSLER CD 93.000
Duration: 57 minutes
Issued as part of Hanssler’s ’faszination musik’ series, this live-compiled Elgar One was recorded at concerts between 27-29 October 1999. Similar to Norrington’s London Philharmonic Royal Festival Hall performance on 11 October last, which I reviewed for The Classical Source, it’s good to have a permanent document of his lively view of this great symphony.
Norrington’s approach to Elgar’s First is perhaps too urbane – there isn’t the focus on the composer’s inner passions, the shadows. If Norrington appears to be slightly inhibited about fully revealing Elgar’s emotional fantasy and the heart-on-sleeve outpourings, he is certainly aware of the subtly elusive aspects of the music – there is much that is delicately traced: in the lighter-scored passages of the scherzo or the opening of the finale for example. In doing so, Norrington moves this music closer to Schumann – Elgar’s true German counterpart, Anthony Payne once told me – and away from the assumed Brahms.
All this said – particularly given some of the disappointing aspects – Norrington does have the work’s structure in full-view; he responds to the surface incident with relish, and presides over an unfussy and fleet account, which is very refreshing. He also has antiphonal violins, so important in clarifying the two sections’ dialogue (the music written for this design) and doesn’t make portentous the symphony’s opening motto – indeed, Norrington is one of the few conductors that really makes this introduction ’semplice’ as marked.
Norrington adopts ’authentic’ tempos, the slow movement flows (albeit lacking somewhat in tension and inwardness) and the overall time of 48 minutes is about right in terms of the score. Yet his refusal to linger or indulge the moment may displease some, even if Norrington’s overall directness and symphonic through-line is not unwelcome, and, as the scherzo winds-down, Norrington shows that he can ’swell’ the expression by moulding the music when he wants to (from 4’52”-5’16” especially). I could though have done with much less non-vibrato string playing – Norrington over-uses this effect, which draws attention to itself rather than offering illumination.
Norrington’s CD may not be a first choice for this music – he doesn’t join Elgar himself, Boult, Barbirolli, Solti or Haitink (all EMI except Solti’s Decca taping) in offering a truly comprehensive traversal of this masterpiece. It is though a very likeable rendition, one I shall return to quite often, for it offers a sincere and informed view that doesn’t overplay its hand; one always senses Norrington’s deep commitment.
The Wagner (live, 4-5 November 1999) is Norrington’s ‘usual’ 8-minute dash through it and again has something tangibly considered at its core (although ultimately its inclusion is neither here nor there; nor is it a “bonus track” when the CD has twenty-odd minutes unused!).
The Elgar’s the thing. Norrington, full-chested and indomitable, cascades through the final bars with zeal, but seems less hasty than in London – his ’scramble to triumph’ would perhaps not have been out of place a century ago. For all my critical brickbats, I have now listened to this recording several times – and look forward to doing so again. Very well and instinctively played (Elgar’s early successes came in Germany) with excellent sound, Norrington’s Elgar One is notable for its freshness, vitality and some points well-made.