It is almost two years since the release of Daniel Barenboim’s exceptional recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony with the Berlin Staatskapelle.
The finest version of the work to appear on disc in many years, it signalled Barenboim’s return to the music of a composer he had conducted and recorded extensively more than 30 years earlier, but which he was now revisiting with an orchestra possessing its own very distinct tradition and soundworld.
Now, we have the First Symphony, recorded at concerts in the Berlin Philharmonie last September. If it’s not quite as overwhelmingly impressive as his account of the Second, it’s still a remarkable achievement. In its voicings and especially in its gradations of string tone, the performance seems to fix Elgar’s orchestral writing even more firmly into the context of post-Wagnerian romanticism than before; the veiled sound for the opening motto theme immediately evokes memories of Parsifal, while the slow movements sometimes acquire a Brucknerian spaciousness.
At 51 minutes, Barenboim’s recording isn’t as slow as several others – John Barbirolli, Colin Davis and Giuseppe Sinopoli all take significantly longer – but is still a thing of extremes. The first movement is allowed to unfold at its own pace, lasting almost 20 minutes, but that is followed by a lightning-quick scherzo, with Barenboim putting enormous faith in the fabulous articulation of the Staatskapelle strings. The finale, too, is immensely purposeful, and only the closing minutes of the symphony disappoint. The crowning return of the motto theme in the finale doesn’t quite sweep everything before it, as it can in some interpretations. There’s no unambiguously optimistic resolution, no real sense of what Elgar called “a great charity and a massive hope in the future”. For Barenboim, it seems, there has to be a compromise. (Andrew Clements / The Guardian)