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CD Review

Edward Elgar

  • Cockaigne (In London Town) - Concert Overture, Op. 40
  • Symphony #1 in A Flat Major, Op. 55
Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli
EMI CDM 7 64511 2 68:26
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Glorious, glorious, glorious John.

Barbirolli had a long history with Elgar's music. For one thing, he was the third cellist to take up the composer's concerto. He championed Elgar at a time when the music needed it, as, for some very strange reason, it seems to every few years. Indeed, this sort of ebb and flow of interest seems to afflict just about every British composer, excepting Britten, at least so far.

One nice thing about the spate of recordings of 19th-century British music in general is that they allow us to see that scene closer to the way Elgar's contemporaries saw it. There are some fine composers about: Sullivan, Parry, Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor, Stainer, even Mackenzie. In comparison, however, Elgar's a being from another world, or the hominoid who touched the 2001 monolith. He plays the game at such an obviously higher level. Furthermore, given his contemporaries (including Sullivan, a bona fide genius), you couldn't have predicted him. The music is so much more complex – technically as well as psychologically – so much more deeply worked and fully finished. Compared to Elgar, his contemporaries' orchestras sound thin and a little dull.

The Cockaigne overture provides us with a case in point. It's the composer's musical valentine to London, the city of cockneys and kings. He wrote it during 1901 and 1902, a comparatively fallow year. Besides the overture, he completed only two of the Pomp and Circumstance marches and the Coronation Ode. The whiff of "Elgar lite" has hung around this brilliant piece ever since it premièred. However, it captures, like no other score I know – including Vaughan Williams' second symphony – the energy, bustle, and shove of the city. The music lets you see grand, glittering processions as well as singing and dancing buskers – the pearly kings and queens – side by side. I think this Mahlerian juxtaposition of grand and vulgar confused the first audiences. What is Elgar's patented nobilmente doing beside the evocation of harmonicas and ocarinas? A big nature takes everything in. Furthermore, Elgar's nobilmente is never as straightforward as the marking implies. Here, it brings in a strain of yearning, perhaps for an impossible love. It's seems as if Elgar needs to adore the city even more than he does. The composer – a very complex personality indeed – loved the countryside (in fact, lived there much of the time), but he also loved moving in high society. Despite his fame and honors, he always saw himself as an outsider looking in, with his nose continually pressed against the window glass. London represented, among other things, a never-reachable grail. That too comes out in the work.

Elgar's first symphony appeared in 1908. Many – including its dedicatee and first conductor, Hans Richter – considered not only the greatest English symphony to that point, but the greatest symphony of modern times. Elgar characteristically seemed of two minds, mostly brought on by his habitual fear of the evil eye, like a dog who expects to get kicked, which would never allow him to fully enjoy success. His letters are full of both self-disparagement and a kind of shy pride. Most of the early commentary – and not just flag-waving British commentary, either – put this symphony alongside the Beethovens, particularly the slow movement, which Richter singled out and which Elgar's friend Jaeger ("Nimrod," of the Enigma Variations) compared to its counterpart in the Ninth. Within a year of its première and before the age of mass radio communication, this symphony had over a hundred performances, most of them outside Britain.

The Bright Young Things after World War I – among them, the composer and critic Constant Lambert – dismissed the symphony as yet another example of theme music for Col. Blimp. "Smug" was one of the kinder epithets. They consigned Elgar's music to the same rubbish-bin as the minor poetry of the Edwardian and Georgian era. They seriously misheard it. Elgar doesn't laud empire. In fact, most of the work runs a fairly unsettled, nervous course (and Elgar's second symphony goes even further in that direction).

Furthermore, for all the comparisons to Beethoven, Elgar's music differs too much from that composer's. Elgar lacks Beethoven's classical clarity. Beethoven talks to you directly. Elgar continually alludes to things. The famous motto-theme of the first symphony provides a case in point. Elgar rarely states the motto in full, and yet its presence haunts the entire work. One can see straightforward variations of it throughout, but less clear is Elgar's use of it as an archetypal "shape." This comes down even to the placement of climaxes in various themes and the very scale-degree of the climactic note, in themes that have otherwise little to do with the motto. Elgar identified the motto with the spiritual quality of charity – a thread running through experience and coloring it. There's plenty of what Shaw called "head-work" in the symphony, but much of it comes across as "felt" rather than "thought." Although I don't deny the music's emotion, Beethoven always impresses through his logic or his deliberate messing-up of logic. At any rate, the music almost always seems to have a logical referent. Elgar seems like a "spirit radio," drawing strands of thought out of the air and bundling them. His method of composing scraps at a time and then forging them together bears this out. Unlike Beethoven (or Brahms, for that matter), he wasn't particularly systematic about his composing. One can't imagine him leaving around, as Brahms did, a notebook labeled "Good Second Subjects." On the other hand, he once wrote in a letter to a friend that the themes of the symphony came "from the same oven."

The symphony begins with one of the rare statements of the motto in full. It always reminds me of the Kipling poem "Recessional." It has the sound of armies fading away in the distance. Once done, Elgar leaves it for a rather turbulent, fevered theme. Much of the movement plays out the drama of whether the motto will win out over the fever. The motto attempts to come back several times, sometimes in "shreds and patches," to be beaten back by the despair. As you would expect, the motto comes back at the end, but with a difference. There's no triumph in it. It's sad and tired. I don't understand how listeners could have heard self-satisfaction in this work.

The fever runs through the main theme of second-movement scherzo. However, you also hear humor as well as a particularly Elgarian wistful lyricism. The motto comes in, but only by extreme allusion, at the end. And it's a matter of "symbolic orchestration" more than an actual quote – pizzicato basses in a slow march.

The adagio follows without a break. It's Beethovenian in the depth of feeling it provokes, but not really in any other way. It has much Wagner in it as Beethoven. The main theme, again, alludes to the motto without ever quoting it. It's almost a counter-melody to the motto. It sings, even soars, beautifully, with a great deal of regret. For me, as for generations of listeners, this is the most miraculous movement of the four.

Finales – at least since Beethoven – often concern themselves with transformation. Given what's happened so far, we can safely bet that Elgar wants to end up with the motto, blazing triumphantly. Elgar doesn't disappoint. The movement, however, opens with a down-beat equivalent to the motto (it turns out, a variant of the motto, but the relationship isn't obvious right away). As in the first movement, the motto tries to break through, only to be shouted down by yet another angry theme, similar in function to the main idea of the first movement. Still, the overall mood is heroic, rather than angry and restless, perhaps because just about every major idea relates very strongly to the motto. When the motto finally does break through the struggle, it seems a necessary outcome, rather than something tacked on. For me, it's one of the great modern endings, thoroughly convincing.

I've simply not heard a better recording of Cockaigne than Barbirolli's. It's almost manic in its energy. The account of the symphony is undoubtedly one of the four best – Barbirolli with the Hallé, Elgar's own recording, and Boult the other three. I happen to prefer Boult, mainly as a matter of temperament. I like a little distance. Barbirolli is just too exciting. The finale especially suffers from an excess of enthusiasm. Rhythm often deteriorates in the quicker passages. On the other hand, I don't really care. It's still a great account, and the slow movement in particular lets you know why you listen to music in the first place.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz