Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis – Elgar: Froissart … Symphonies 1 & 2

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Elgar
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Recorded 12 & 20 April 2007 in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: April 2010
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
SIGCD179 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 52 minutes

 

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The recordings issued here have been taken from a series of concerts given by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis to celebrate the 150th-anniversary of Sir Edward Elgar. Already issued on Signum are Enigma Variations, Serenade for Strings, and In the South, and on ONYX the Violin Concerto with James Ehnes also coupled with the Serenade for Strings. The Cello Concerto with Truls Mørk, as well as the Violin Concerto and Froissart are available as downloads from the Philharmonia Orchestra’s website and, to complicate matters, Symphony No.1, In the South and Enigma Variations are available as well, only as downloads, from Decca Classics.

The 33 year-old Elgar’s Froissart was first performed to much acclaim at the Three Choirs Festival in 1890. Elgar himself conducted for this Worcester performance, his first notable success. Inspired by Jean Froissart’s 14th-century chronicles, the overture gets a bold, swaggering, yet sensitive performance from the Philharmonia and Andrew Davis, fully at one with the quotation from Keats at the head of the score: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.”

The First Symphony was premièred in Manchester under Hans Richter at the end of 1908 and was very well received; at its first London performance at the Queen’s Hall a few days later, also under Richter, the reception was tumultuous. Davis and the Philharmonia produce a good performance, the conductor unwilling to linger too long on some passages, keen to keep the work as a whole in sight. The opening ‘motto’ theme, which reappears, is played quite plainly but the mood deepens as the movement progresses, the key-changes dealt with very effectively. The second movement shows the quality of the Philharmonia’s strings off with fine playing and the music’s vivaciousness is nicely caught. The Adagio comes across with tranquillity and some excellent contributions from the wind. The finale’s introduction is suitably mysterious in its reflections of the opening movement, and the highpoint of the movement glistens. Though perhaps not as effective as Solti in his superb studio account for Decca, one of his finest achievements, Davis produces a cogent reading.

The Second Symphony was premièred just two-and-a-half years later, Elgar conducting at the Queen’s Hall. Dedicated to the recently deceased King Edward VII, the work was received quite well, though Elgar was disappointed, remarking “What is the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.” (Billy being W. H. Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra.) Under the circumstances, perhaps the composer was too sensitive, the audience may have treated the work more as a memorial for the late king, or were profoundly affected by the extraordinarily moving ending.

Andrew Davis’s performance of 20 April 2007 is very fine indeed. He and the Philharmonia have the ebb and flow of Elgar’s writing sounding entirely naturally and this work receives the finest playing in this series. The passion in the writing is made alive and all the more successful by Davis’s careful attention to dynamics. The first (and longest) movement leads to a firm and confident climax, admirably caught. The second movement, a funeral march, epitomises Elgar’s writing with reflection and mourning losses. Again, Davis’s shaping is wholly sensitive to the writing. Does the Spirit of Delight appear in the third-movement scherzo? If it does, it is a fleeting visit, for the mood is often one of unsmiling glee. Here, the brass comes over extremely well. The finale has plenty of atmosphere; its climax, a piercing solo for trumpet, is extremely effective. The work ends most movingly and quietly with rapt playing from the orchestra, a magical moment. The audience seems in spellbound silence, although applause should have been removed; nevertheless, this a very impressive performance.

During the series of concerts, the Royal Festival Hall was undergoing refurbishment, and the performances took place in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall. I did find the size of acoustic much greater in these recordings than expected. Indeed, Froissart is too reverberant (artificially added?), though the Second Symphony sounds more natural and very well recorded. This set can be recommended wholeheartedly.

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