Edward Gardner / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Elgar: Symphony No. 2; Serenade for Strings

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At the 1911 premiere of Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 63, the composer complained of the audience that "they sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs." One can hardly blame them: with the coronation of King George V coming up, listeners expected pomp and circumstance, but instead got a moody, introspective work that nodded more than once in the direction of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"), right down to the choice of key, and like that work let the clouds lift only in the finale. Although Elgar himself tended to push the tempo when conducting the work, the tendency among modern conductors has been to slow down and wring out the drama. Edward Gardner, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this nicely recorded Chandos release, takes perhaps a middle path, letting the first movement destabilize its points of rest but not following the Tchaikovsky-like tendencies of the Russian conductors who have essayed the work. He seems somehow to observe the movement's quizzical Allegro vivace e nobilmente tempo marking. Sample the C minor slow movement, where the connections with Beethoven become explicit; Gardner has a nice, sober approach. In the finale and in the youthful Serenade in E minor, Op. 20, he gets a good singing tone from the BBC Orchestra strings, and the solo brass and wind players don't miss a thing in the complex opening movement. There are more dramatic readings, but this may be a good pick for those approaching the symphony for the first time.

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