Saturday 21 March 2015

Vasily Petrenko brings a fresh vision to Elgar’s First Symphony in a vivid new recording from Onyx Classics that I wouldn’t want to be without

It took a long time for Edward Elgar (1857-1934)  to arrive at his first symphony. As early as 1899 he had suggested to the Worcester Cathedral organist, Ivor Atkins, that he might write a symphony on the subject of General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), the Victorian hero of Khartoum, for the Three Choirs Festival  that year. However, it was choral works that continued to occupy his time.

However, on 16th September 1907 he wrote to his friend Canon Gorton that ‘The serious work waits for Rome.’ On the 3rd December he wrote from Italy to Alfred Littleton of Novellos, his publisher, telling him that he had abandoned the idea for a third oratorio on the Apostles. The same day he began work on his first symphony. However, on his return home in May 1908 the symphony was still not progressing very well. It was the surrounding of the Herefordshire countryside that helped him to complete the symphony.

Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in A flat was premiered in Manchester, England on 3rd December 1908 with Hans Richter conducting the Halle Orchestra to scenes that had not been witnessed by the premiere of an English symphony before. There was applause after each movement and Elgar had to go up on the platform after the third movement. During the following year it received a hundred performances, being played in Vienna, Berlin, the USA, Australia and Russia

A new release from Onyx Classics  features Vasily Petrenko with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra  performing Elgar’s First Symphony coupled with the Cockaigne Overture.
ONYX 4145
Petrenko brings a lovely lilt to the opening of the Cockaigne Overture ‘In London Town’, Op. 40, full of drive and energy yet finding much Elgarian poetry in the quieter moments. It is finely shaped with a lovely orchestral rubato and nicely pointed up lighter passages. Petrenko really knows how to build the impact of the more dynamic moments, helped enormously by the vivid recording, letting the RLPO really let rip, ratcheting up the swagger as the music heads toward the coda. And what a terrific coda.  

This is as fine a performance of the Cockaigne Overture that you could wish for.

It is terrific how Petrenko builds from the subdued opening of the Andante - Nobilmente e simplice of the Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 55 to the grand outpouring of the main theme. There is a fine forward thrust when the second subject appears with Petrenko alive to all of Elgar’s gentler, poetic moments. There are some lovely Elgarian turns of phrase with wonderfully drawn, broad phrases as well as some beautiful woodwind phrases from the RLPO. Petrenko brings a very fine flexible tempo, building the tension brilliantly. Somehow this conductor allows one to hear new things; the way he phrases the music, rising to moments of great power and emotional pull. Some exquisite little instrumental phrases clearly come through in this terrific recording. When the music rises at the grand moment, when the horns sound out, is superbly paced before the music falls back with some beautifully turned phrases.

The quicksilver, scurrying Allegro molto soon turns to a more direct and rhythmically precise phrasing, but the music is soon pushed ahead with more finely poetic interludes. Soon one realises how well these rather directly presented phrases fit into the overall conception that Petrenko has of this music. Perhaps this is the public Elgar juxtaposed against the private man. There are some very fine brass phrases and some wonderfully poetic moments as the coda arrives, beautifully done and leading into the Adagio.

The transition into the Adagio is exquisitely done with Petrenko realising all of Elgar’s emotional impact, revealing some lovely moments and bringing some very fine string textures. There are wonderful little orchestral surges that add to the passion of this adagio, rising superbly before an exquisite coda, hushed, with lovely muted brass appearing to bring the conclusion. Quite beautiful.

The Lento arrives from the memory of the coda of the adagio, finely paced as the theme for the succeeding Allegro slowly starts to appear. The allegro soon takes off at a fine pace with some terrific, taut playing from the RLPO. They show a fine thrust and energy with a lovely rubato, building brilliantly in dynamics as the music confidently thrusts ahead. Later there are some incisive clipped phrases that again are played with a directness of utterance, set against passages of broad, confident forward movement. Petrenko builds the later stages very finely, the music rising with horns and scurrying woodwind to reach its triumphant climax. Petrenko gives the feeling of a consummation of all that has gone before, leading to a finely paced coda that slowly increases in tempo to end.

Petrenko brings a fresh vision to Elgar’s symphony. There is much competition in this repertoire but, without a doubt, I wouldn’t want to be without this newcomer. They receive a first rate, vivid recording made in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England and there are excellent booklet notes from Daniel Jaffé. I really look forward immensely to Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic recording the Second Symphony – which I hope they will.

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