You really have to go over the top these days in this work (who could forget Bernstein’s transformation of Nimrod from tweedy county type into a Mahlerian Viennese neurotic?) to draw apart from the pack in what has now become, regrettably, a warhorse. With the best will in the world, I can’t pretend that Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony have any more to say than Monteux, Jochum, Mackerras or Davis.
For me, the real gem in this release is the so called Concert Overture – In the South (“Alassio”), inspired by a holiday the Elgars took on the Italian Riviera. Apparently, they didn’t enjoy themselves very much but you’d never guess it from the music. This score contains some of Elgar’s greatest music. As a symphonic poem, it completely eclipses anything Liszt wrote in the genre and makes Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien, inspired under similar circumstances, sound positively insipid. The opening is one of the most exhilarating in all music: sweeping, impetuous and radiating passion. The Italian sensuality of the viola passage (later published separately as a song In Moonlight) is ravishing.
Ashkenazy controls the climaxes perfectly and I urge anyone who has never heard this brilliant piece to investigate it: your perceptionof Elgar will never be the same.