Serenade for Strings, placed after the Symphony, is better heard as an aperitif, a light-toned flowing account that recognises that the heart of the work is the central Larghetto, eloquently shaped here without indulging sentimentality; quite chaste and intimate in fact, played with sensitivity.
Previously I afforded a five-star welcome to Edward Gardner’s Chandos account of Elgar’s First Symphony; about the Second I am less certain. I am not sure why, but there is a lack of listener involvement (purely personal), a feeling that this reading doesn’t dig deep enough, for all the energy and eloquence of the first movement (the main stumbling block), and its vivid detailing (a couple of things aren’t pristine enough though amidst Elgar’s complex scoring) and the thoughtful dynamics: the music is recognisable of course but I am not drawn into it as can be the case; more it’s about admiring from a relative distance, and perhaps on the day the studio environment was a little stifling; no disrespect intended to producer Brian Pidgeon or engineer Ralph Couzens, the latter capturing sound of clarity and fidelity.
Suddenly the relationship changes, for the lamenting second movement brings a definite increase in emotional identity, the pacing broad, the sentiments hushed and deeply-felt, passions rising to the surface organically, a frisson created, and the all-important oboe soliloquy is shaped with notable expressiveness. The succeeding ‘Rondo’ (effectively a Scherzo) is suitably fleet to match the Presto marking without sacrificing preciseness and articulacy (good timpani contributions even if these instruments seem a little closer than in the first two movements), although whether the build-up at the midpoint is nightmarish enough is a moot point; however, there is no doubting the high level of virtuosity for the coda. With the Finale – which goes through all sorts of volatile turns, the amiable opening bars deceiving – Gardner (bringing out sometimes-concealed writing for horns and bassoons along the way) ensures a through-line regarding pomp, anxiety, nostalgic remembrance and dissolve, the death of Edward VII in 1910 perhaps playing its part at this point (the contemporaneous Symphony was dedicated to His Majesty while he was alive), the final fade distilled magically.