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Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2

The Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor) Detailed performer information
2CDs Download only Available Friday 3 May 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Hallé
Recording details: Various dates
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve Portnoi
Engineered by Steve Portnoi
Release date: 3 May 2024
Total duration: 119 minutes 4 seconds

Over a century after they gave Elgar's Symphony No 1 its first ever performance, the Hallé returns to this most favourite of works, the new recordings here presenting both symphonies plus a lush new orchestral arrangement by Colin Matthews of Elgar's partsong The Prince of Sleep.

Elgar, Richter and the Hallé
Crucial to Elgar’s success during the first decade of the 20th century was the advocacy of the great Austro-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter (1843-1916), and his tenure as the Hallé’s Principal Conductor from 1899 to 1911.

Having been sent the score of Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’), Richter responded enthusiastically to conducting the premiere, which took place in London, on 19 June 1899. Its success catapulted Elgar to a position of eminence among British composers of the day, and Richter rapidly included it in his first Hallé season on 8 February 1900.

In October the same year, Richter, in his position as Principal Conductor of the Birmingham Triennial Festival, directed the ill-fated and, by and large, unsuccessful premiere of The Dream of Gerontius. Realising the work’s greatness though, Richter determined to perform it with the Hallé Choir and Orchestra, but this was not until 12 March 1903, by which time he had raised the game of his players and singers. The performance was a triumph; the day after, the orchestra joined the North Staffordshire Chorus for a further performance, this time with Elgar conducting.

Meanwhile, in August 1901, Elgar had sent Richter a score of the recently premiered Cockaigne overture. Two months later, on 24 October, Richter was giving its first Manchester performance, asking Elgar to conduct the work at a rehearsal. He was thrilled by the Hallé’s response, writing to Augustus J Jaegar (immortalised as ‘Nimrod’, Variation IX of the Enigma Variations), his friend and staunch supporter at the publishing house, Novellos: ‘Orchestra the finest I ever heard’ … ‘Cockaigne was golorious last night under Richter. I don’t think any of you London Johnnies know what orchestral playing is until you hear the Manchester orchestra (in Manchester that is, in their own room).’

By now, the symphonic ambitions Elgar had harboured for several years were growing, as reflected in his letter thanking Richter, revealing that the performance ‘taught me that I am not satisfied with my music and must do, or rather try to do, something better and nobler. I hope the Symphony I am trying to write will answer to these higher ideals and if I find I am more satisfied with it than my present compositions I shall hope to be allowed to dedicate it to my honoured friend Hans Richter: but I have much to do to it yet.’

As new works appeared, so Richter performed them with the Hallé, for instance the Coronation Ode (15 January 1903), The Apostles (25 February 1904), and the Introduction and Allegro (9 December 1905). Under Elgar’s baton the Hallé was also the orchestra for the premiere of The Apostles, in Birmingham on 14 October 1903. Another highly significant event in which Richter, the Hallé Choir and Orchestra were centre stage, was the three-day Elgar Festival at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 14-16 March 1904.

It was the first time any living British composer had been so lauded: the first and second evenings were devoted to The Dream of Gerontius and The Apostles (receiving its London premiere); and the final night included the first performance of the concert overture, In the South, with Elgar conducting. Richter brought it to Manchester on 3 November 1904. Elgar’s gratitude to the conductor after the festival glowed with thanks and praise: ‘Without you the thing could not have been done at all, and with you it was a great artistic success and your presence gave it a dignity which would otherwise have been wanting.’ By now Richter had ensured that Elgar’s music was embedded in the Hallé’s psyche; a legacy that remains until this day. Richter now waited and hoped for the promised symphony to materialise.

Symphony No 1 in A flat major Op 55
Elgar’s symphonic ambitions can be traced back to the late 1890s, when he toyed with the idea of a symphony commemorating General Gordon, who was glorified by the Victorians as ‘the hero of Khartoum’. Although this came to nothing, the goal of composing a symphony remained a constant in the composer’s mind, expressing his belief in a 1905 lecture, when Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, that ‘the symphony without a programme is the highest development of art’.

During 1903/4, Elgar began sketches for a symphony which did not take flight, and he turned instead to other projects, in particular the oratorio, The Kingdom first performed in October 1906. In its aftermath he composed little, retreating instead into nostalgic remembrance of his childhood, recasting his juvenile compositions into the two suites for orchestra titled The Wand of Youth during 1907. By June of the following year, however, thoughts for a symphony in the key of A flat major were seriously stirring; on 27 June, his wife, Alice, wrote in her diary that ‘E … Playing great beautiful tune’—this was to become the symphony’s motto theme.

The first movement was sketched in December when the Elgars were in Rome; however, work on the symphony stalled over the winter and early spring of 1907/8 until he was back home in Hereford, where he began work in earnest and completed the movement. On 29 June 1908, Lady Elgar noted in her diary that ‘E wrote all day, possessed with his Symphony’; 4-5 August was devoted to the scherzo; the slow movement was complete by 23 August and the finale sketched over two days, 27-28 August. By 25 September it was finished leaving the composer in a state of total exhaustion.

The score bore the dedication: ‘To Hans Richter, Mus. Doc. True artist and true friend’, and indeed it was Richter who conducted the first performance with the Hallé, in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall, on 3 December, 1908. Four days later Richter conducted the symphony’s London premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra: at the beginning of the rehearsal Richter addressed the musicians with the words: ‘Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer, and not only in this country.’ When it came to the conclusion of the slow movement, W H Reed, the violinist and friend of Elgar, recalled that Richter emotionally declared: ‘Ah! this is a real Adagio—such an Adagio as Beethove’ would ‘ave writ.’

Jaeger, by this time terminally ill with barely months to live, described Elgar’s reception to Dora Penny (‘Dorabella’, the tenth of the Enigma Variations): ‘The Hall was packed … The atmosphere was electric … After the first movement E.E. was called out; again, several times, after the third, and then came the great moment. After that superb Coda (Finale) the audience seemed to rise at E. when he appeared. I never heard such frantic applause after any novelty nor such shouting. Five times he had to appear before they were pacified.’ To Elgar, who had sent him a copy of the piano arrangement prior to the premiere performances, Jaeger wrote: ‘I spent some happy quarter hours on your Adagio in the Symphony … My dear friend, that is not only one of the very greatest slow movements since Beethoven, but I consider it worthy of that master. How original, how pure, noble etc. … It’s the greatest thing you have done.’

From the outset, audiences and critics alike recognised the work’s qualities and mastery. In the Manchester Guardian, its critic, Samuel Langford, concluded: ‘That the work is the noblest ever penned for instruments by an English composer we are quite certain’. Within a year there had been 100 performances the world over. As to its character, Elgar summed it up in a letter to his fellow composer, Walford Davies: ‘There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.’

The Symphony begins with a slow introduction, revealing quietly a solemn, stately march-like melody riddled with nostalgia. Marked ‘Nobilmente e semplice’ – ‘noble and simple’, this is Lady Elgar’s ‘great beautiful tune’, the motto theme that haunts the symphony. After an assertive, fortissimo repeat of the march, it fades away, the main fast body of the movement now welling up with an urgent, restless first principal idea on the violins and violas. Shortly after a heady climax, the second group of main ideas begin with a sighing downward phrase shared between first violins and first clarinet.

During the expansive development of these elements, Elgar’s orchestral command is evident, as the music, often turbulent in mood, is quelled by quiet recurrences of the motto-theme, and moments of still reflection. Following the recapitulation of the main ideas, the music builds to a dramatic, intense climax with searing trumpets piercing the texture. It leads to an impassioned rendition of the motto theme, which lingers to have the last word in a coda of delicate beauty.

A scherzo follows, its initial idea characterised by rushing semiquavers, followed rapidly by a vigorous quick march derived from the motto introduced by the violas. In the contrasting trio section, the music continues at the same hectic pace, but its light and airy quality, with emphasis on the woodwind, makes it utterly different in character. When rehearsing the symphony Elgar would ask the musicians to play it, ‘like something you hear down by the river’; without doubt it is an evocation of Elgar’s childhood memories. The scherzo returns, even more of a whirlwind now, and there is a further recollection of the trio’s freshness featuring solo violin. Finally, the march makes a veiled appearance, augmented rhythmically on pizzicato lower strings.

The scherzo leads without interruption to the slow movement. Its serene opening section is seemingly miles away from the bustle of the previous movement, yet the first violin theme, in a remarkable transformation, is note for note the same as the scurrying first idea of the scherzo. A glorious singing melody emerges in the upper strings as the second subject, spreading, in the apt words of the great Elgarian authority, Michael Kennedy, ‘benedictory tranquillity’. Thereafter, solo clarinet and violin indulge in flights of fancy, before the return of both main ideas, the second theme even more expressive as its wistful sobbing swells to a climax. At this point Elgar introduces on the strings yet a third theme, which he marks molto espressivo e sosteuto; although new, its heartache seems to sum up and extend the character of the previous themes. It leads to the movement’s inspired conclusion where the tender third theme on strings is answered, magically, by muted horns, like an echo.

The finale also has a slow introduction, during which the tramp of a march that will become prominent is adumbrated, and there are also references to the motto. The fast music explodes into life with a main theme that is almost entirely rhythmic; the second principal theme, introduced by violas and cellos, is vested with a heroic quality. A sense of suspense gradually builds to the forthright statement of the march, its appearance heightened by the briefest of dramatic pauses indicated by a comma in the score. The development of the first theme and the march follows, before Elgar, in a stroke of compositional genius, transforms the motto into a lyrical, long-breathed melody that seemingly soars ever onwards ad infinitum. At the end, Elgar caps the symphony with the motto bathed in majestic splendour, enhanced by vivid splashes of orchestral colour hurled against the march’s implacable rhythm to magnificent effect.

Symphony No 2 in E flat major Op 63
In 1909, buoyed by the overwhelming success of the First Symphony, Elgar returned to the sketches he had made in 1904, and began to develop them into a successor symphony in the key of E flat. Work was interrupted as he finished the Violin Concerto, then he took up the symphony again up in late 1910, completing it on 28 February the following year. Dedicated as ‘a loyal tribute’ to the memory of King Edward VII, who had died in 1910, the symphony received its premiere in London, conducted by the composer, with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, on 24 May 1911.

What are the clues to the symphony’s character? At the end of the score Elgar wrote two place names ‘Tintagel – Venice’; heading it was a quote from Shelley’s poem Invocation:

Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!

Furthermore, he revealed to a friend that the symphony was about ‘the passionate pilgrimage of a soul’, and to another friend he offered a further hint, by way of another Shelley quote:

I do but hide
Under these notes, like embers, every spark
Of that which has consumed me

In January 1911 he confided to his friend and muse, Alice Stuart Wortley, (whom he nicknamed ‘Windflower’) that he had ‘recorded last year in the first movement’, a year which had included a holiday in Cornwall, when he visited Alice who was staying in Tintagel and admired its ‘austere and lyrical beauty’. Also that year he and his wife had an extended stay in Italy, including Rome and Venice, where St Mark’s Basilica impressed him. Various musical ideas sprang into Elgar’s mind during the Italian sojourn, which found their way into the symphony.

Elgar’s complex character is reflected in the Shelley quotes: at one moment he could be ebullient, up-beat and positive, at others quite the reverse (for instance, after the premiere of The Dream of Gerontius), and this dual persona haunts the symphony in its restless mood swings; surely, the soul undertaking the pilgrimage is Elgar’s.

Of the first movement Elgar had told Alice Stuart-Wortley that he had ‘worked at fever heat’ and that ‘the thing is tremendous in energy’, which is apparent from the very opening where the music strains to be unleashed, then bursts with the ebullient primary theme. Its second phrase is significant, Elgar thinking of it as the ‘Spirit of Delight’ theme which pervades the symphony. The first violins introduce the first of the secondary themes, lyrical and wistful; soon after a ‘sweet and delicate’ tune is added by cellos.

In the development of the thematic ideas, it falls to the cellos again to initiate an anguished melody high in their register against an uneasy, sinister throbbing accompaniment. It seems likely that this was the section that Elgar referred to in a letter to the ‘Windflower’: ‘I have written the most extraordinary passage I have ever heard—a sort of malign wandering thro’ the summer night in the garden.’ This huge edifice of a movement reaches its climax when the ‘Spirit of Delight’ theme is hammered out by timpani and trombones.

Given the symphony’s dedication to the late monarch, it was inevitable that audiences of the time assumed that the profound Larghetto in the key of C minor was a lament for his passing; in reality the music dates from 1904 and was Elgar’s response to the sudden death of his Liverpool friend and advocate, Alfred Rodewald. After the tender opening for strings, almost like a sigh, which can be traced to the first movement, a funereal processional is established with trombones leading and the violins adding to the heartfelt grief. Other themes join the litany of remembrance, such as an elegiac passage for strings with a surge of emotion in the final twist of the violas’ melody. With the return of the march, one of the symphony’s most memorable moments occurs, when the solo oboe strikes out on its own with a cantilena of sorrow so personal that it is seemingly improvised and independent of the underlying slow tempo. The movement reaches a final powerful climax, and in its wake, the ‘Spirit of Delight’ theme sheds its benign balm on its closure.

Elgar described the Rondo’s character to Alice Stuart-Wortley as ‘very wild and headstrong it is with soothing pastoral strains in between and very brilliant.’ All is gossamer woodwind at the beginning, then whirlwind energy whipped up by the strings. A bounding idea, like a fast waltz and in the minor key, follows, and later a tiny innocent melodic idea on flutes, oboes and clarinet which Elgar associated with the ‘Windflower’. Elgar now springs a surprise, for welling up from the depths, the tortured cello theme of the first movement returns on strings, then brass, but now to a malevolent pounding rhythm that, as it increases in volume, threatens to overwhelm the entire orchestra. Elgar cited lines from Tennyson’s poem, Maud, as his inspiration for this passage which begins: ‘Dead, long dead’. The strange, unsettling vision recedes, but somehow casts a pall on the initial ideas as they return.

Without any preamble, the principal theme of the finale is heard on lower winds, horns and cellos; confident and stately, it unfolds at a strolling pace. A majestic subsidiary theme with upward leaps follows on violins, while the secondary main theme marked ‘nobilmente’, is heard on the first horn and strings. Elgar thought it the embodiment of Richter, describing it as ‘Hans himself’. In the melting pot of development, Elgar adopts fugal techniques to review, combine and transform ideas which leads to a ferocious, dramatic climax with the solo trumpet blazing out. The second part of the development dwells on a sighing phrase descending two octaves on violins. With the return of the principal idea the music gains momentum until, just when it seems it is heading for a triumphant apotheosis, the tempo slackens and the mood becomes introspective. The ‘Spirit of Delight’ theme reappears, augmented on flutes, clarinets and bassoons and despite the final sonorous chord, the symphony ends pensively.

Compared to the triumphant reaction to the First Symphony at its premiere, the response to the Second was less so; the sudden switch of mood for the subdued ending baffled many. Elgar was taken aback, saying to the orchestra’s leader, W H Reed, ‘What’s the matter with them, Billy. They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs.’ Only after the end of World War One, did the Second Symphony come into its own, establishing itself as one of Elgar’s quintessential utterances.

By the time of the Second Symphony’s premiere Richter’s eyesight was failing and in February 1911 his retirement was announced bringing to an end his association with the Hallé. Consequently, it was Elgar who conducted the Hallé’s first performance of the symphony in Manchester on 23 November 1911. A year earlier Elgar had written to Richter thanking him for his devoted advocacy of his music over the years: ‘The man you befriended long ago (Variations), be assured this man will never forget your kindness, your nobility, and the grandeur of your life and personality. Love. Yours ever, Edward.’

A continuing legacy: Sir Mark Elder, Colin Matthews and the Hallé
Apart from Richter and Elgar, other close relationships between the orchestra, conductors and composers have featured in the Hallé’s history. Barbirolli and Vaughan Williams spring to mind, and in recent decades the synergy between Sir Mark Elder and Colin Matthews. The seeds of a collaboration between Matthews and the Hallé had begun in 2000 when he was commissioned to write Pluto, the Renewer, an additional movement to Holst’s The Planets, the premiere of which was conducted by Kent Nagano.

Soon after Elder became the Hallé’s Music Director, he invited Matthews (with whom he had first worked in 1983) to become its Composer-in-Association, a post he held from 2001 until 2010, thereafter becoming Composer Emeritus. An initial idea they discussed was Matthews arranging of some of Debussy’s Préludes for orchestra, with three or four performed each season. There was no plan to arrange every one of them, but such was their success that the project continued until all twenty-four were completed by 2007.

Alongside were commissions of Matthews’s own works, Vivo for orchestra (2002), Alphabicycle Order (2007) for narrator, the Hallé Youth Choir and orchestra, and Crossing the Alps (2009), for the Hallé Choir, one of the works by a living composer to be partnered with a Mahler symphony in 2011, in this instance, the Second, as part of the Hallé’s joint Mahler symphony cycle with the BBC Philharmonic. Two discs on the Hallé Label, are devoted to five works of Matthews including most of his commissions for Hallé forces. Pluto, the Renewer is heard on Elder’s recording of The Planets; and Matthews’s arrangements of the Debussy Préludes are also conducted by Elder, as is a further Debussy arrangement of Et la lune descend la temple qui fut from Book Two of Images.

Matthews came across The Prince of Sleep (1925), when he was browsing through Elgar’s late partsongs, with a view to making an orchestral arrangement of one of them as a surprise 70th birthday gift for Sir Mark in 2017. Elgar here set words by Walter de la Mare, and in this beguiling miniature Matthews found, ‘the best tribute I could make to Mark for his many splendid Elgar performances’. Just as Elgar developed his craft through hearing his music played by the Hallé, so has Matthews, who has no hesitation in extolling the value of composer residencies: ‘The experience of working with an orchestra is like no other, gaining confidence by getting to know the players, whose response was (and still is) always warm and welcoming. It has been a remarkable privilege to been observer of the Hallé’s development over more than twenty years, watching it become, under Mark, one of the finest orchestras not just in the UK but in the world.’

Andrew Burn © 2024

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