Unlike almost anywhere else in Europe, on these shores the symphony never really caught on as a primary musical form, at least not until this century. Few British symphonies dating from before 1900 exist; of those that do, only a couple by Parry and Stanford are ever played these days. In fact, the history of the British symphony does not seem officially to start until 1908 with Elgar's magisterial first - the prototypical and quintessential English symphony. It is a tremendously vibrant and superbly structured piece, described by its first conductor, Hans Richter, as "the greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country".

Having virtually single-handedly given birth to a new native genre, the question on everyone's lips as the Edwardian era drew to a close, was whether Elgar (right) could follow up one masterpiece with another. His Symphony No 2 in E flat appeared in 1911 and, ever since its premiere, debate has raged on the question of its standing, especially in relation to the first. It is certainly somewhat different, employing a far more modern musical language of often eerily shifting chromaticism. And the questing turbulence of the first three movements only seems to be resolved in part in the long and dispassionate- sounding finale.

Yet the piece has always had its fair share of admirers, Sirs Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli among them. And, in recent years, one of the second symphony's primary advocates has been the American Leonard Slatkin. Awarded the Elgar Medal in 1992 for his pioneering work in widening appreciation of Elgar's music abroad, Slatkin now returns to the second in his Tuesday Prom with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The approximate timing of the second symphony is given as 56 minutes in the Proms brochure. Two days later, on 13 August, there is a chance to hear Elgar's Symphony No 3, with an approximate timing of 55 minutes. But a great deal of that nearly hour-long duration is, of course, down to the sterling work of Anthony Payne and his already universally highly regarded "elaboration" of the sketches Elgar left. At its premiere earlier this year, the completion was variously hailed as a "historic occasion" and "the event of the decade in British music".

The original work was commissioned by the BBC, at the behest of George Bernard Shaw, but left only roughly half-finished when Elgar died in 1934. A terser and more concise Elgar seems to be at work, though one can hardly gain a true impression of the opus in the state Elgar left it. Yet with Payne's masterly elaboration, we now have what amounts to a major "new" Elgar symphony. The ingenuity, integrity and sheer hard work which Payne, in the face of much hostility, put into his task is phenomenal. The results are definitely worth hearing, right through to the hushed, percussive ending, which seems to sound out a knell for a long-lost era, while, at the same time, being radically forward-looking. So Elgar Symphony No 2 from Slatkin and the Philharmonia on Tuesday, and Elgar-Payne No 3 on Thursday, from the team that gave the acclaimed premiere in February - the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis.

Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore SW7 (0171-589 8212), 11 Aug 7.30pm, and 13 Aug 7pm

Comments