ELGAR:  Symphony No. 2 in E Flat, Op. 63
London Symphony Orch/Sir Colin Davis, cond.

LSO LIVE 00018 (B) (DDD) TT:  57:38


Seldom ever has one read a program note as spot-on and unapologetic as Stephen Johnson's for this issue of Elgar's Second and final Symphony (No. 3 is a recent conflation of sketches which the elderly composer instructed be destroyed after his death; like Sibelius he should have done the job himself). The Second, when Elgar introduced it with the LSO in February 1911, was a failure in hall less than full. "The audience sat there like a lot of stuffed pigs," the wounded composer wrote. But the fault was his, although apologists have claimed for nearly a century that a quiet ending was the reason (whereas No. 1, finished in 1904, had ended on a blazing "Empire Forever" note). Elgar had begun sketching the Second immediately after, but put it aside for seven years, then suddenly finished the piece in three weeks. Given that it lasts nearly an hour, haste made - if not waste - then discontinuity. Johnson does point out the piece's durable excellences, but nothing is nobler than the opening few measures (Allegro vivace e nobilmente - that recurring Edwardian Age coinage found so often in Elgar's music).

The plain fact is that the work, both emotionally and thematically, is haphazard - full of hills and dales. The Larghetto slow movement comes close to consistent loveliness, but the Rondo:Presto substitute for a scherzo that follows is feeble stuff by Elgar's stoutest standards, and the finale (Moderato e maestoso as marked) begins with a theme so foreign from anything before it, and banal compared to the opening of the first movement, that it never altogether recovers. I'm not certain how many times Sir Adrian Boult recorded it, but even he couldn't pull the Second together on his last try for EMI. Indeed, it was the un-knighted Vernon Handley (again!) who has come closest in my experience in finding - perhaps imposing - an illusion of unity, with a quiet peroration that doesn't invite applause because he didn't intend a stampede, any more than Tchaikovsky did in the Pathètique Symphony. Handley's 1980 recording with the LPO on EMI's Music for Pleasure budget label still takes the prize, lacking only the full impact of an organ that might come up more sonorously were EMI to remaster and reissue it.

So far I've managed to avoid discussing Colin Davis and the LSO (once Elgar's orchestra) on their own label - a page taken belatedly from the RPO. But "LSO Live" means in this case Barbican Center acoustics, London's counterpart of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center: i.e., a mess in the beginning that never was really remedied. Here the sound is harsh, flat, and unbecomingly dry by Third-Millennium standards, although nary a peep, beep or snuffle is heard from audiences on October 3-4, 2001. This sonic handicap furthermore tends to exaggerate a reading as discontinous as the music, slower throughout than Handley - only by smidge in the last two movements but notably so in the slow movement, where Davis takes 2'40" longer without finding comparable poetry. Timpani playing suggests the 1812, although I'm inclined to blame the Barbican. Sad to note, James Mallinson produced with Tony Faulkner as sound engineer.

There is nothing else on this disc, meaning 20+ unused minutes. Even as a budget label this version is an also-ran.

R.D. (May 2002)