Symphony no. 2
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Public grief and private sorrow are the two complementary sides of Edward Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat major, op. 63, a work that is officially dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, but that actually reflects «the passionate pilgrimage of the soul», adding a personal and deeper touch.
Elgar began to compose his second symphony in 1903, but he interrupted the work to devote himself to the drafting of In the South, of the Symphony no. 1 and of the Violin Concerto, and returned to the previous project only in 1910 and completing it by 28 February 1911. It was the composer himself who conducted the first performance of the symphony at the London Musical Festival on 24 May 1911.
After listening to Daniel Barenboim’s new recording of Elgar’s symphony (“new” because he already recorded it in the 1970s), I have found many fine and even beautiful hints that unfortunately are not well defined for the most part of the time and, even when Barenboim follows a clear path, it seems that he does not have the capacity to pursue it to the end.
I will explain myself straight away. Elgar’s music flows with simplicity under Barenboim’s conduction and there are moments of ineffable pleasure as the famous “Spirit of Delight” theme (inspired by the first line of the poem Song by Percy Bysshe Shelley) from the first movement and others where it is easy to guess the troubles of a human soul. Moreover, from the second movement (the “funeral march”, Larghetto) onwards, Barenboim chose a dark colour to emphasize an idea of grief and torment, distinguishable also in the last two movements – bur, despite the accuracy that reveals at least the sensitivity of the conductor, the general picture remains imprecise, as if the last word has not being said. The previous hints, although precious in their essence, in the end appear as wonderful but empty ideas that have not found their “unifying centre”. This outcome is chiefly due, in my opinion, to the fact that the conductor has deliberately decided to privilege the emerging of nice but “independent” ideas that undermine the principal one, creating more confusion that enjoyment in the end. This impression is even more accentuated by the fact that the last movement ends with a peaceful parting that protracts the sense of incompleteness.
Among the most inspired moments, it must be mentioned precisely that Larghetto that gives the character to the entire symphony, so that it seems to reveal that in Barenboim’s mind this is the central movement of the work. This is my personal speculation of course, but the point is that it is precisely here that it is possible to hear the most anguishing accents of sorrow and the tension to something higher.
At last it is worth remembering the excellent sound of the recording. No one of the colours of the orchestral palette is lost and the accomplished playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin is something that is really enjoyable, if it is legitimate to suggest to hear a CD for the orchestral playing despite the questionable outcome of (part of the) conduction. I think anyway that this trait is so valuable and the recorded sound is so good that it should be noticed, at least in the end of this review.