Daniel Barenboim first recorded the Elgar symphonies back in the 1970s and of course also made ‘the other’ Cello Concerto recording with his wife Jacqueline du Pré. Now he’s returning to them all, the latter with Alisa Weilerstein last year. He’s redoing the symphonies with the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Second this year with the First to follow in 2015.
And this Symphony No 2 sounds like urgent business for Barenboim. Forget Sir John Barbirolli weeping in the slow movement, or Sir Adrian Boult with his stiff upper lip and two-metre baton revealing Elgarian profundity. Barenboim’s all bustle-and-busyness at the start, not so much nobilmente as ‘no time to stop, got errands to do’. This is a turbulent Elgar, changing his mind every ten seconds, and with his rhythms and phrases all sounding rather four-square at the outset (and perhaps a little too Elgar-as-Brahms).
Then when Elgar says “presto”, Barenboim really puts the foot down, making the third movement a veritable showpiece of technical virtuosity on the orchestra’s part, perhaps at the expense of the unusual but altogether distinctive Elgarian characteristic of nostalgia infusing the quick bits.
But eventually it all begins to make sense. He may be an old Elgarian stager, trained in the art by Barbirolli himself, but this is very much Barenboim doing Elgar modern-style. The fact that everyone is so clearly on the edge of their seats means that no one has time to weep for either the dead King to whom it was dedicated or an Empire rapidly going to the pack.
On the purely technical side, this is a showstopper recording, and any quibbles I may have are about interpretation, not execution. Even so, in the slow movement – the absolute heart and soul of this underrated masterpiece – there is some appropriate emoting, even if the phrasing is sometimes more Berlin than Costswolds, and the usually to-die-for oboe lament sounds just a wee bit perfunctory.
Ultimately, Barenboim proves himself a true, career-long Elgarian and the soaring tuttis of the finale demonstrate all the things that good Elgar performances need – an obvious love of the music and in this case a sense that there’s a half-century of experience driving it. The last couple of minutes embody a real sense of resolution, making a deeper emotional impact than all that has preceded it, and clinching this performance of Symphony No 2 so excellently that Symphony No 1 next year looks like a prospect to relish.