International Record Review, June 2008
Assiduous Elgarians will know that this is the fifth commercially issued recording in the last 10 years of Anthony Payne’s elaboration of the surviving sketches of Elgar’s Third Symphony, a completed four-movement work that was first heard, semi-privately, towards the end of 1997. Since its public première a few months later by the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis, it has been virtually universally accepted into the repertoire.
Although there are distinguished Elgarians who do not believe that it was necessary for undertake such a completion, or believe that the result is either worthy of the great composer or approximates to what Elgar had in mind, others – including myself – feel that the decision to allow Anthony Payne to attempt such an elaboration and completion was the right one, principally because, at the time when permission was so granted, the copyright of Elgar’s works was due to expire on January 1st, 2005. After that time, of course, the sketches would have been fair game for anyone to attempt a completion – as they are now, of course – but such is the overall convincing nature of Payne’s completion that any subsequent version by another hand is rendered unnecessary. The result may not be Elgar’s Third Symphony, but the heart of what he intended, in so far as it can be divined from those sketches, resides in this completion. It is known that Elgar had a pretty clear idea of the complete work in his mind, and played it through at the piano to several friends and colleagues, all of whom thought they were hearing the entire work – although much of what Elgar actually played may have been extemporized at the time.
The unfinished nature of the work was made all the more tantalizing by the publication in the 1930s of many of the sketches, some in full manuscript score in the composer’s autograph, in W. H. Reed’s book, Elgar, as I knew him (Gollancz, London; 1936). This is not the place to go into the perceived rights and wrongs of the result, but in overall terms I believe that Payne has got the true Elgarian tone absolutely spot-on, always with the large caveat that only about half of this music is actually by Elgar – the other half is original composition by Payne as a conjectural completion of the authentic 50 per cent. Payne has published a little book on the Symphony, explaining how his realization was achieved, so those interested in the subject can learn just about everything there is to know on this fascinating project.
As this is the fifth recording, some may feel initially that it is a somewhat superfluous issue. They would be wrong. For this is the first recording of a non-British orchestra, the first also by a non-British conductor, and it is so good that it offers considerable competition to its predecessors. In the first place, the Japanese Sapporo Symphony Orchestra is of international rank and plays superbly throughout. Secondly, Tadaaki Otaka is a fine conductor, who gave memorable performances of Elgar’s major orchestral works when he was Chief Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for ten seasons – I recall a particularly noble account of the First Symphony about 15 years ago under his baton. Thirdly, divorced from any inherent feelings of nationalism in music, this performance cements the work in the international repertoire, and, last of all, is extremely well recorded.
There is no doubt that Otaka has a profound grasp of the structure of Payne’s achievement – indeed, in some respects, greater than that of almost all his rivals on disc. This is best exemplified also by his control of the tempo relationships. Early in the first movement (in the authentic portion of the work Elgar left in full score) the second subject arrives in a more relaxed tempo than that of the opening Allegro molto maestoso, a change of speed which is, architecturally, extremely difficult (in this passage, for example, I think Sir Colin Davis does not judge the change, or relate to the tempos, ay all well). Otaka succeeds admirably in fusing these disparate ideas without any sense of awkwardness – as does Richard Hickox on Chandos – and is able to maintain the balance throughout this movement. The various climaxes here are splendidly achieved, making this the most coherently convincing movement of the four in Payne’s realisation.
In addition, I particularly admire Otaka’s handling of the largely conjectural finale, providing that the essence of this music is not necessarily the province of British conductors and orchestras. But – and it is a big but – the version by Kickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is just that little bit finer, in varying degrees of interpretation and especially in terms of recording quality, to make that the best of all. Hickox delivers a reading that is not necessarily more English, but is more truly Elgarian, exemplified in very finely delineated details of interpretation and a feel for that finale’s central climax that is breathtaking, before the gradual winding down of the concluding pages.
Both Otaka and Hickox include the latest Payne realisation of unfinished Elgar, the Sixth Pomp and Circumstance March, which is by no means so convincing a completion as the Symphony. As any body of soldiers will tell you, it is next to impossible to march coherently to a band that changes tempo often. Elgar knew this instinctively – after all, his father-in-law was a major-general – and there is a sense of swagger in his marches, which, while the basic tempo of each of them can accommodate slight variation, does not permit relatively sudden changes of gear. In this realisation, Payne changes gear far too often for a genuine symphonic march, in my view at times quite unnecessarily, which Hickox follows literally, to the detriment of the overall character.
Otaka is much more successful in the March in that his changes of tempo are more subtle, almost imperceptible at times, thus making a fully coherent statement. Another disappointing feature of this March is that Payne’s orchestration lacks the touch which served him so well in the Symphony; surely, with the March material, a far more splendiferous orchestral sound and texture is required – perhaps including an optional organ part, as well. It’s all a bit too understated – so often the orchestral equivalent of water-colours, rather than that of flamboyant brilliance.
For the Symphony, it is Hickox; for the March, Otaka, although Kickox also includes Payne’s orchestration of So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone, an occasional piece of jobbery from 1932, quite well played if rather indistinctly sung. The Elgarian should have both CDs and Otaka’s account of the Symphony should be studied alongside Hickox’s by all who are fascinated by the final thoughts of this country’s greatest composer as bought to life by an exceptionally dedicated disciple.