Leonard Slatkin conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in Elgar's 2nd Symphony in London's Royal Festival Hall on 4 Feb at 7.30pm, and in Bristol's Colston Hall on 5 Feb at 7.30pm
Unlike anywhere else in Europe, the symphony has never really caught on as a primary musical form, at least not until this century. Few English symphonies dating from before 1900 exist; of those that do, none is ever played these days. In fact the history of the symphony on these shores only seems to officially start in 1908 with Elgar's 1st - the archetypal English symphony. It's a tremendously vibrant and magnificently structured and sustained work, described by its first conductor, Hans Richter, as the "greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country".

Having virtually singlehandedly given birth to a new native genre, the question soon arose as to whether Elgar could follow up one masterpiece with another. The 2nd in E flat appeared in 1911, and ever since its premiere, debate has raged as to whether it is the equal of the 1st. Certainly it's very different employing a more modern musical language of often eerily shifting chromaticism. But the questing turbulence of the first three movements is only partially resolved in a long and dispassionate finale.

Yet the work has always had its admirers, Boult and Barbirolli among them. In recent years, one of the 2nd symphony's foremost advocates has been the American Leonard Slatkin. Presented with the Elgar Medal in 1992 for his efforts in widening appreciation of Elgar's music abroad, he has made the composer's 2nd Symphony a key component of his "Focus on Elgar" tour with the Philharmonia. Recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor, Slatkin's fastidious interpretation of Elgar's 2nd looks set to dispel any doubts as to the work's validity. Meanwhile, Slatkin's appointment, following that of von Dohnanyi as Principal Conductor, means the Philharmonia is now a force to be reckoned with.

EYE ON THE NEW And the English symphonic tradition continues, as should be evident in the world premiere of Diana Burrell's BBC commission, Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals, scored for gigantic orchestra and described by her as a "huge hymn to creation". Michael Schonwandt conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, 5 Feb, 7.30pm

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