Elgar: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 album review – warmth, refinement and conviction

<span>Security, warmth and refinement … Mark Elder conducts the Hallé.</span><span>Photograph: Bill Lam/The Hallé</span>
Security, warmth and refinement … Mark Elder conducts the Hallé.Photograph: Bill Lam/The Hallé

Elgar’s music in general and his two symphonies in particular have played a significant part in Mark Elder’s 24 years as music director of the Hallé. When the orchestra founded its own record label, the early releases included both the Elgar symphonies, conducted by Elder, which were released in 2003 and 2004. Now, with his tenure about to come to an end, the release of these more recent performances, taken from concerts in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in 2021 and 2018 respectively, brings the story full circle.

Elder’s approach to these greatest of British symphonies has not altered appreciably over the last two decades. The timings for all the movements of the First Symphony are marginally slower in the newer version, those for the Second marginally faster. In comparison with other existing recordings, these readings tend towards the slower end of the spectrum, without ever seeming laboured. But what has obviously matured and deepened over the intervening years has been the relationship between conductor and orchestra. This is evidenced in the security, warmth and refinement of the playing in both works, whether it’s the fierceness of the brass at the climax of the First Symphony’s opening movement, the velvety hushed strings of its Adagio, or the keening solo oboe weaving its way through the reprise of the funeral march of the Second.

Elder’s seemingly faultless grasp of the symphonic architecture and his sense of where to allow the music to breathe and where to push it forward, means that the works’ very different endings – the First’s majestic return of the march it opened with, the Second’s introspective, almost tragic quotation of its “spirit of delight” theme – are both overwhelmingly convincing. These performances, a little more spaciously recorded than their predecessors, are, I think, as fine as any currently available on disc.

Stream it on Apple Music (above) or on Spotify