Symphony no. 1 in A flat minor
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
It was since 1898 that Edward Elgar wanted to compose a symphony to celebrate General Charles George Gordon and his heroism during the Khartoum siege, but he fulfilled his wish only ten years later, when – in a relatively late age as he was already in his fifties – he completed the Symphony no. 1 in A flat major, op. 55. Despite the original intent, Elgar later discarded the idea of a program symphony and in a lecture at the University of Birmingham in 1905 he declared that a symphony is more effective when it is not complicated by a programme because, as in the case of Johannes Brahms’s third symphony, music is more effective when it is abstract. «There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future» he wrote to a friend, referring to the composition of his first symphony.
Elgar considered the first symphony as «a composer’s outlook on life» and this happened to be his most applauded work in his lifetime. After its premiere in Manchester under the conduction of Hans Richter, it gained an immediate success and was subsequently performed in London and throughout Europe.
Daniel Barenboim already recorded Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra many years ago, so that the new album can be rightly considered an update of the previous one, but the outcome of the new recording (with the Staatskapelle Berlin) is far more superior. In it, Barenboim surpasses also his recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony, released two years before, so that this album is a double record in the conductor’s discography.
From a general point of view, the symphony shows a great dramatic tension, originated by Barenboim’s constant effort to reach a goal that is very clear in his mind and that becomes clearer in every movement. This is possible first of all thanks to his emphasis on the orchestral colours, reaching the best result in the middle and last section of the first movement, Andante nobilmente e semplice, Allegro. This movement is also noteworthy for the wonderful alternation between the first theme with its dreamy and gentle atmosphere, enlivened with noble and beautiful nuances that are familiar and majestic at the same time, and the tumults of the next part. It seems to observe the fight of two great forces, one good, the other evil, and the first movement can be rightly considered as an extensive picture.
The Allegro molto is conducted by Barenboim with boldness and is similar to a march, in contrast with the Adagio, the movement that Elgar once asked an orchestra to play «like something you hear down by the river», and that is maybe the most effective piece of the album after the greatness of the first movement. The sound of the orchestra is liquid and echoes the composer’s words. Barenboim represents with great care many quiet moments that are not only charming in themselves, but openly contrast with the character of two surrounding movements. The finale Lento. Allegro is simply overwhelming, titanic in its outcome.
This is a thrilling album. Barenboim’s conduction is magisterial and gives to the listener the impression to hear this celebrated work for the first time.