RECORDS / Passionate pilgrim travels to glory: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on the lates issues of of Elgar and Verdi

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ELGAR - Symphony No 2; Overture, In the South - BBC SO / Andrew Davis (Teldec 9031 74888-2)

'I HAVE worked at fever heat and the thing is tremendous in energy,' wrote Elgar of his freshly completed Second Symphony. Looking at the score you can see what he meant, though for me it rarely sounds anything like white-hot in performance. But Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra seem to have done it again - to have repeated their triumph with that other high-powered but complicated English symphony, Vaughan Williams's Sixth.

I need to hear this recording a few more times before I can start thinking about honours lists. Still, after one hearing I was very impressed - there is nothing contentious here, but a show of conviction at every stage of this 'passionate pilgrimage'. Impressed and surprised; I would never have thought it was possible to capture such a range of feeling - from nobilmente affirmation to foreboding and pained ambiguity in one conception. In the South, too, is a fertile, wide-ranging, but at the same time unified experience: a joyous prophecy of the symphonic Elgar to come. Excellent recordings - sonorous, atmospheric and clear. SJ

'RARELY, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight]' - Shelley's words, Elgar's inspiration, and right now I know the feeling. This is a glorious account of the symphony - headstrong, expansive, truly 'the passionate pilgrimage of a soul', as Elgar himself put it.

Davis gauges its dramatic mood-swings to perfection. His is an outgoing, even swaggering presence as the first subject bounds from the starting blocks, but as 'the spirit of delight' wafts us into remote, uncharted regions, the gentle swooning of strings and dreamily nostalgic woodwind solos open windows on an altogether more secretive world. Davis coaxes exquisitely refined playing throughout these strange, twilit pages, and he is mindful too of 'the malign influence' that stalks them. His slow movement is majestic - a private elegy which seems to carry an entire nation's grief. Duly affecting is the distracted oboe solo - the still small voice at its heart. And Davis takes no prisoners as 'the malign influence' returns on horseback to terrorise the scherzo, playful percussion turning to pounding hooves.

As a whole his reading falls somewhere between the enduring dignity of Boult and the high emotionalism of Barbirolli, but he is the equal of any through the long, radiant valediction of the closing pages where suddenly, like Elgar, we have all the time in the world to look back and savour the memory. Vivid, ample sound, and 'Edward in Italy' for extra generous measure. Outstanding. ES

VERDI - Falstaff / Panerai, Titus, Sweet, Horne, Lopardo, Bavarian Radio SO / Sir Colin Davis (BMG/RCA 09026 60705-2)

THERE are no surprises here - no hints of darker meanings, no dramatic new musical perspectives - nor any truly outstanding characterisations (except possibly Marilyn Horne's splendidly solid Quickly) and yet it all seems cohesive and - up to a point - involving. Julie Kaufmann and Frank Lopardo are a likeable pair of young lovers, the Merry Wives cluck sharply enough, Alan Titus's Ford manages a decent show of blustering, and Rolando Panerai's Fat Knight is a rounded, if not super-abundant, creation. I am glad that unlike some Falstaffs he does not sacrifice pitch to parlando too often - though I wish he had pitched a little more resolutely at 'the trill invades the world' - Falstaff's musically astonishing declaration of renewed spirits in the first scene of Act Three.

No, it is Sir Colin Davis who is the major unifying, invigorating force here. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays beautifully for him, whether in the bracingly coarse colours that put musical flesh on Verdi's hero, or in gentle, beguiling ideas like the string figure that haloes Fenton and Nannetta's courtship (I am tempted to call it the 'ahhhh' motif), or in the weird and wonderful sounds that accompany the goings-on at Herne's Oak. While this Falstaff is far from being a symphony with voices (a more than possible slant on Karajan's later recording), it is orchestral details that linger at the end - very welcome, but hardly an excellent thing in opera. SJ

SUCH a perfect piece, so difficult to bring off. Even classic recordings like the Toscanini or early Karajan have fallen short in some respect. This one does too, but don't discount it. The spirit of Shakespeare's comedy and Verdi's ingenuity is alive and well and living in Colin Davis's Bavarian orchestra: they chortle, bicker, and bluster splendidly. Davis is characteristically robust, good on the belly-laughs. But he can be charming and, in the last scene, magical too. As for Verdi's dazzling ensembles, he paces Act Two's great ducking scene with the enthusiasm of one who cannot wait for the pay-off but knows just how to. And the recording helps with its well-developed sense of stage movement and perspective.

Casting? A qualified success. In Julie Kaufmann and Frank Lopardo we have first-rate young lovers - always the still centre of the mayhem; and there is a sonorous Ford from Alan Titus (he and Davis really lay on the choking anger of the Jealousy aria). But I have heard more alluring Merry Wives (the comedy sounds very forced in their remarkable first scene) and Rolando Panerai's ripely drawn Falstaff begs the question: what price a veteran in this role? Less singing, more acting. Good value, though, in the big scene with Marilyn Horne's indomitable Quickly. You can see her obsequious curtsey with each tremulous repetition of 'Reverenza'. ES