Every British conductor worth his or her salt has recorded the symphony, as have Solti, Barenboim, Slatkin, Ashkenazy and Sinopoli. The trick with Elgar, especially in this symphony, is to avoid lugubriousness and Gardner manages well getting the piece off to a quiet and measured start. The transition from the well-performed Scherzo into the slow movement is handled perfectly. However, after listening to Barbirolli’s beautifully nuanced recording, the ordinariness of this newcomer is clear. Sir John’s is the one to beat.
Of the other performances I sampled all were of a very high standard. There is Boult, of course, and a splendid version from Mackerras and the LSO; he gets great feeling into the noblimente theme. Then there is the remarkable recording Colin Davis made with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1997. The power of the German orchestra, its heft and discipline, is remarkable and it blows the competition out of the water. In this field, a new recording must stand tall and this one is a bit average.
The Introduction and Allegro is long recognised as a virtuoso piece for string orchestra and there are no shortages of top recordings of this deservedly popular work. It has also been lucky in the recording studio; most recordings I know of are excellent. However, again I hold that the old Barbirolli recording for EMI with the Sinfonia of London is the best, coupled with an equally remarkable Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan Williams. It is a peerless recording.