* Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, op. 55
- Overture, Le roi Lear, op. 4
- Overture, Beatrice et Benedict, op. 9
Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis.
Haenssler CD PH05040 Total time: 74:58
Summary for the Busy Executive: This simply won't do.
Elgar's symphonies resemble few others. The composer's working method
partook of both the sprint and the distance run. He would essentially
come up with scraps, spread pieces of paper across his working room, and
start moving them into an order really only he could see. Then he would
expend great effort weaving together the scraps. This results in less
of a classical symphony and more of a fantasia. The second symphony
moves even further in this direction than the first. We move from theme
to theme largely by psychological principles, rather than by architectural
ones. Add to this that Elgar mastered the complexity of late-Romantic
orchestration better than anybody but Mahler, and you have two main roots
of difficulty: the symphonies are both hard to play and hard to interpret.
For me, Elgar's symphonic music changes as flexibly, as complexly, and
as evanescently as thought itself. A conductor can easily get lost in
the moment and lose sight of the larger dramas that go on.
This live performance, blowzy and raw, reminds me of blowzy and raw
accounts of Mahler, with similar aesthetic results. The orchestra plays
as if it had only a read-through rehearsal before. The players sound
as if they're just bulling it through. In the first movement especially,
one section follows another without any particular reason. You lose the
conflict between the famous motto-theme and the more agitated themes.
At times, the ensemble shreds apart and can get back together only by
over-emphatic playing. Looseness afflicts the scherzo as well. The
last two movements come off best, although here and there the orchestra
spaces out in the slow movement and the grandioso finale comes off as
crude as I've ever heard it. You only have to compare with Barbirolli
on EMI 64511 to realize how all the pieces should click into place.
Berlioz fares much better. For one thing, the textures are leaner and
thus a player can hear his place in the ensemble more clearly. I don't
know, however, whether I ever will become a fan of the King Lear overture.
To me, it fails capture the roaring nihilism of the play, but this may
stem from the possibility that Berlioz may have known only a corrupt
version, like Garrick's, which went for a wildly improbable happy ending
with Cordelia saved and married off. The overture to the late comic
opera Beatrice et Benedict comes off best -- a light, twinkly, very suave
reading -- although nobody, for my money, beats Munch on RCA.
For live recordings, the noise level is a bit high, but still acceptable.
One hears the occasional turn of a page, grunts, groans, and a bit of
singing from the podium (at least, I hope that's where it's coming from).
The acoustic in the Elgar is way too reverberant, exacerbating the
muddiness of the playing. The Berlioz seems to come from a different
acoustical setup, still a bit bright, but not enough to affect orchestral
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