Classical: I have heard the future

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The Independent Culture




THERE WERE two Elgar symphonies - now there are three. Such has been the impact of Anthony Payne's masterly elaboration of the sketches for the third in the few short months since it was premiered. That Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra chose to begin their current Elgar series with it gives you some measure of the esteem in which it is already held. It has been accepted. Not, I hasten to add, as Elgar's Third Symphony but, rather, as prophecy, as conjecture, but with heart and soul as well as scholarship. It's the nearest thing we have to closure for Elgar the symphonist. And it's not a happy ending. His loss of faith is echoed and re-echoed in the bell-like tolling of the tam-tam. Time marches on, conflict passes, taking with it "half the seed of Europe" in the dying moments of the symphony. Payne's daring allusion to "The Wagon Passes" from Elgar's roughly contemporary Nursery Suite is a grim, startling metaphor for lost innocence.

And all the more startling for the chivalric swagger that Sir Colin brought to the main body of the outer movements. It has to be said that the sheer heft of the London Symphony over that of the BBC Symphony, who originated the piece, threw the sonority of those outer movements into far more dramatic relief. This was altogether riper and bigger-boned Elgar than the other Davis - Andrew - and the BBC orchestra had revealed to us. Sir Colin positively rode the sound into futures unknown. For the finale, Payne found a cathartic climax where Andrew Davis found only a crisis.

So a performing tradition is now in place for the "new" symphony with disparities in interpretation already broadening our perception of the music, just as it has done for the Violin and Cello Concertos over the years. As if to endorse that view, while simultaneously celebrating the "internationalism" of Elgar's music, Davis and LSO brought on board a Japanese violinist and Austrian cellist. Kyoto Takezawa played the Violin Concerto with plenty of objective fire. But the more discursive, the more introspective the piece became, the more of an outsider she seemed. The notes were mostly there, but not the reasons for them. Or rather, not Elgar's reasons. That was also true of Heinrich Schiff who came at the Cello Concerto from the Austro-German side of Elgar's nature. The slightly portentous presentation of the first subject, the abundance of strenuous accenting and earnest rhetoric - this was Elgar a very long way from home, though not in the least homesick.

Back, though, to the dying days of Edwardian England. The second movement of the Second Symphony rolled out like a great cortege, carrying with it a nation's collective grief. Shelley's "spirit of delight" duly succumbed to the spirit of regret - a portent of things to come - but through the sinew and opulence of the LSO sound and Davis's noble allargandos, Elgar had come home again.