Elgar’s Second is on a roll. From Berlin to Singapore the score seems to be taking its place, finally, as one of the pillars of late romanticism. As older presumptions and critiques – the allegations of Imperial swagger and Salvation Army self-righteousness – fall by the wayside, the sequential inertia of the material is a more enduring problem but skilful direction can mask that. Conductors are opting for radically airier textures than was once the norm. Many play up mysterious or disintegrative elements that chime with our own era of uncertainty and change, the “Spirit of Delight” ever more elusive, the influence of Brahms almost nowhere.
Vasily Petrenko has conducted fine, even remarkable live accounts of both Elgar Symphonies with several orchestras yet neither of his Onyx recordings does justice to his distinctive vision. Unlike the First this rendition of the Second does not claim to have been set down near the start of his Liverpool stint, though, confusingly, the booklet suggests that the couplings date from seven years earlier than the main work. Were the Elgar 2 sessions to have dated from much earlier that would explain the provisional nature of an interpretation which hadn’t had time to settle; if 2016, the cautious neutrality of some sections remains a puzzle. The string sound is somewhat lean for Elgar which isn’t what one expects from this team in the concert hall.
The highest profile of the recent ‘revisionist’ contenders, Daniel Barenboim, is certainly closer to the ‘authentic’ lick of the composer himself, assuming you take Elgar’s studio recording at face value (which perhaps means ignoring the technological limitations and shorter side-lengths of the day). Petrenko takes a quite different view, playing up the equivocal nature of the music with the widest range of speeds and sonorities. It’s a high-risk strategy when, as here, the emotional intensity comes and goes.
The opening movement gets underway with reluctance, anything but revved up at the start and scarcely “tremendous in energy” at any stage. For all that its pearly, nocturnal heart is exquisitely handled, the argument is so burdened that it doesn’t hang together convincingly. The slow movement lacks world-class depth of tone even if the very end brings some magic. The Scherzo is clipped – metrical and militant, neither playful nor shadowy outside its nightmarish episode; the terrifying impact of Petrenko’s interpretation as experienced live has been curiously neutered at the mixing desk. The broad-paced Finale works best, purposeful at first before fading into an autumnal stasis aptly shot through with self-doubt. The playing, subtle and sophisticated at the close, is neither truly heartfelt nor conspicuously English (whatever that means).
Throughout there’s little trace of the stiff upper lip. Then again, is an absence of pomp sufficient incentive in an increasingly crowded field?
Three of Elgar’s charming miniatures complete the disc, elegant and pristine rather than stodgy or sentimental. Mina, contemporaneous with the sketches for the Third Symphony, is something of a rarity in its orchestral guise. While a newly cleaned-up score was published around the time of the recording, I am not qualified to tell you whether or not it was used; the booklet does not mention it.
The recorded sound is good rather than outstanding, projecting the twinkly radiance of Elgar’s more subdued passages more effectively than the really big moments of the Symphony, which seem at once slightly pale and over-lit. Or is that something inherent in the character of the music-making itself?
An opportunity lost … or so it seems to me. Perhaps the ‘other’ Petrenko will be encouraged to set down his own incandescent rethink of the Symphony, which reassesses timbre, colour and weight within what is mostly a tauter frame.