Anne Ozorio posts
>Below is a link to a wonderfully provocative article by the conductor
>Sakari Oramo on Edward Elgar. It's provocative because he assesses
>Elgar in completely fresh terms. Says Oramo,
Interesting article, though I'm not sure I agree with all of it.
To call Adrian Boult "stoic" and "stodgy" seems way off the mark. (I
had the great fortune of meeting the son of Elgar's friend Ivor Atkins,
Wulston Atkins, late in his life. Both of us just shook our heads
at this characterization of Boult.) I agree with Steve Schwarts that
"operatic" does not really describe Barbarolli--even if he was half-Italian.
I should add that even if you accept these characterizations, the
performances of the young Boult and Barbirolli were quite different than
their later, better known recordings from the stereo era. As for Elgar's
own recordings, I guess I'm in the minority. I've never cared all that
much for most of them (just as I've never liked those of Georg Solti,
the nearst I can think of to a modern disciple). From what I have read
and heard, Elgar changed his view in different interpretations. I'm not
saying he sounded like Boult and Barbarolli in some of them, but they
did vary at least from his accoustical recordings and much later electric
ones. I've always thought of these recordings as a snapshop of his way
with his music at one given time, somewhat shaped by the demands of the
4-minute side of 78s. Perhaps this is unfair, but it is my emotional
reaction to them.
Beyond that, the problem that Elgar suffers outside England is not limited
to Elgar. Aside from Vaughan-Williams--and not entirely aside even
then--all English composers have this problem to one extent or other
For what it's worth, I wrote about the problem of carrying the English
symphony to the rest of the world, among other things, in my introduction
to "Overview of English Symphonys" in the July/August American Record
After Mahler's death the symphony languished in the German-speaking
world, but took on renewed vigor elsewhere: Scandinavia, Russia, the
USA--and in England as well". That was how John McKelvey began the first
Overview of English Symphonies (May/June 1992). He noted that the major
English symphonists are "first and foremost Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and
Walton, but significant works... have also been composed by Alwyn, Bax,
Bliss, Brian, Britten, Moeran, Tippett, and many more. We are beginning
to see recordings of Stanford and Parry from an earlier generation as
well". How right he was. The Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Walton
symphonies are well represented these days, and we also have one or more
sets by Alwyn, Bax, Rubbra, Tippett, Arnold, Lloyd, Stanford, Parry, and
a Brian project in progress. The British symphony has arrived, at least
McKelvey raised a couple of interesting points in his Overview. The
first is his contention that the British symphony has not traveled well
to the US; that could be verified by a study of American concert programs.
McKelvey was writing specifically about Elgar, but you don't see many
performances of Walton or Vaughan Williams symphonies, either--forget
Bax, Alwyn, etc.--while works by Germans and Austrians are everywhere.
One reason for this neglect is that in the early and middle part of the
century when our musical tastes were being formed, most conductors of
American orchestras came from Germanic countries and a few from France
and Italy. None of these countries is a stronghold of British music.
Deep speculation as to why is beyond the scope of this survey, but island
Britain was isolated culturally from the Continent (cultures move around
better by land than by sea), and British conductors didn't push their
country's music abroad. The World Wars didn't help. Elgar's First
Symphony was very popular in Germany before World War I, but by war's
end he was a non-person. The trend continued through World War II, by
which time American musical tastes were pretty well formed.
Certainly English music has its own character. It is imbued with the
English countryside and the ocean with its rocky coastline and cliff-sides.
It is also full of English history, literature, and Celtic and Irish
folklore. This gives it, in the words of Phil Haldeman, "a sense of
mystery that's quite apart from German, French, or Italian sensibilities.
It is music whose romanticism is essentially dark." Not darkness as
absence of light, but as the kind that hides secrets and begs the listener
to search for their substance. English music is actually quite colorful,
not with the sunny reds and yellows of the Mediterranean, but with the
softer pastels of a misty day on a moor. It never forces itself on you.
It is emotional without sobbing, reserved, yet bold--noble but rarely
pompous (though it has its moments). Some of it is walking and marching
music, not with arrogance, but with a confidence bordering on serenity.
English composers loved the orchestra and reveled in its dark sonorities.
Strings are warm and textured, and they did not spare the brass, often
bringing it to the forefront with chordal passages, brilliant flourishes,
and long melodies. And English symphonies sing. All great music has
melody, but English melody is very vocal and distinctive, though what
makes it distinctive is hard to define. Harold Schonberg suggested that
it follows the pattern of English speech, ending a sentence upward.
Others point to its modal quality. Whatever it is, no country's composers
talk about "tunes" as much as England's do. Perhaps this comes from the
English choral tradition. The English have always sung, and they didn't
stop when they wrote symphonies.
Another issue McKelvey raised was the disparity between the reserved
British and the extroverted American approach to the English symphony.
The distinction is valid if oversimplified. Not all British conductors
are reserved, some Americans are, some do not reside in their accustomed
camp on every work, and some are difficult to classify. Nor are all the
conductors who have recorded these works English or American, though
they do tend to fall into one stylistic category or the other. The point
is worth mentioning because some ARG critics believe English music is
more romantic, heartfelt, colorful, and dramatic when played in the
American style; the British approach makes it sound too bland and reserved.
Others, including this writer, believe that it is the essence of English
music not to reveal everything at a single hearing. Of course, we like
some "American" performances just as some "American" colleagues like
some "British" ones. (Quotes imply style, not nationality.) But the
distinction does exist on our staff. These differences apply mainly to
conducting styles. Nearly all the orchestras are British, and they sound
it, with sleek, polished strings, straightforward winds, and polite,
blended, but not unassertive brass.
The conducting personification of the British approach is Adrian Boult.
A friend and champion of Elgar and Vaughan Williams (and Holst), Boult
recorded their symphonies several times. He led the premieres of VW's
Third, Fourth, and Sixth, and the first recording of his Ninth as well
as the first triumphant Elgar Second. He had the trust of these composers,
often working with them while recording a work. In discussing her husband's
Fourth Symphony, Ursula Vaughan Williams observed that "Adrian had created
the second movement" adding that VW "had not known how it should go, but
Adrian had". In his younger and middle years, Boult was more energetic
than in his autumnal period in the 1970s when he made his famous (and
slower, more atmospheric) stereo recordings. Boult's detractors, more
of them American than British, find those late recordings bland, plodding,
and discursive. His admirers hear in them a culmination of wisdom gained
through a lifetime of conducting this music. We hear in them interpretations
that do not wow so much as build to a whole. They are steady and solid,
with a structured bass line, and he always seemed to find the right
tempo. (Either that or he convinced us that the tempo he chose was
right.) Just as important was Boult's grasp of the English idiom and his
"affinity for the secular mysticism of the music", as Haldeman put it.
Joining Boult stylistically--broadly speaking--are Andrew Davis (always
Andrew in this survey unless Colin is indicated), Richard Hickox, Edward
Downes, James Loughran, Bryden Thomson, George Hurst, Andre Previn, Paul
Daniel, David Lloyd-Jones, Norman del Mar, Bernard Haitink, Vernon
Handley, Myer Fredman, Roger Norrington, and Alexander Gibson.
Leonard Slatkin is probably the leading "American" stylist. Slatkin
has put in a lot of time and effort to make himself a fine conductor of
British music, so much so that he is well-respected and liked by British
audiences and performers. He took up the Elgar Third Symphony early on,
conducting it in New York and Washington soon after its first performances
in Britain. If Slatkin resembles any British conductor--and this is a
considerable reach--it may be Thomas Beecham, certainly a more animated
conductor than late Boult. (But Beecham never recorded an English
symphony. He once did a tour with Elgar's First where he cut off a
little more of the score at each stop.) Slatkin can be dramatic and
colorful in British music, with faster tempos, angular lines, and sometimes
impulsive gestures. Detractors of Slatkin miss the breadth, weight,
nobility, and reserve of the British approach. He is often joined
stylistically by David Zinman, Georg Solti, Yehudi Menuhin, James Judd,
Kees Bakels, Charles Mackerras, Paavo Berglund, Raymond Leppard, and
Defying classification altogether is John Barbirolli. Half-Italian,
British born, passionate, romantic, earthy, extroverted in a quasi-Italian
style, yet unmistakably British, Barbirolli is the one conductor with a
large body of work in the English symphony whom we all like in just about
everything he did. If Boult had a sense of tempo, Barbirolli could do
wonders with a melodic line: he seemed to sense its curvature, knowing
just when to lilt and when to reign in, as Lawrence Hanson put it. He
was the street-wise Londoner to Boult's noble Englishman. Barbirolli
recorded both Elgar symphonies but none by Walton. For reasons that
elude me, he did not commercially record a complete Vaughan Williams
set--ironic, given that it was VW who dedicated his Eighth Symphony to
Barbirolli and dubbed him "Glorious John". But at least he gave us five.
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