As fine a contribution as the Doric Quartet makes to the Introduction and Allegro, I did wonder if the principal string-players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra felt a little miffed at being excluded from this role (although Bradley Creswick was guest-leading on this occasion). That’s by the by, and anyway Edward Gardner leads a lyrical and bracing account, vying nostalgic reverie with intense drive, Is dotted and Ts crossed yet with plenty of bittersweet ardour and impulsive vitality.
The First Symphony is just as impressive. Gardner directs a flowing if flexible account that is very listenable and is particularly revealing of detail, dynamics and sonority. More than that, whatever the level of preparation, the end result is spontaneous while peering deeply into the music’s private and public passions and also to its fantasy element – how pertinent that Anthony Payne cites Robert Schumann as Elgar’s true German counterpart. Yet what emerges, for all the expressive fluidity, is a genuine Symphony – structured, sensitively connected and sure of its direction and goals.
Following a first movement that thrills and also retreats in the most affecting way, the Scherzo is a fiery beast (with many exciting exchanges between antiphonal violins), given without awkward halting, and when the music needs to yield it does so naturally and with full fervour. The lead into the glorious slow movement anticipates a rapt Adagio, properly spacious and attractively chaste, and by its close the listener has been transported to a very special place, for which no words can do justice; the red-light no spectre and maybe producer Brian Pidgeon was left speechless.
The Finale seems an intrusion after such Heaven-sent wonders, even emerging from shadows as it does, and with a Bruckner 9 tremolo, but Gardner sustains interest into a fortified Allegro, distils the central panorama as a mostly hushed reminiscence, and then drives the Symphony to an eager if grand conclusion. Put simply, no matter how many Elgar Ones you have (beginning with the composer himself, from 1930), you also need Edward Gardner, superbly recorded. Symphonies 2 and (Payne's) 3 next?