Elgar’s Second Symphony at the 2015 Proms

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The BBC Proms are in full swing in London. The annual summer series, featuring over 70 concerts at Royal Albert Hall, has been a magnet for music lovers since 1895 when the British Empire stretched across the globe. It’s a joyful and inclusive cultural event that wipes away any hint of pretension. In addition to reserved seating, inexpensive standing-room tickets are sold, inspiring one conductor to describe the Proms as, “the world’s largest and most democratic music festival.”

On September 12, the festival culminates with the iconic Last Night of the Proms, a unique event which blends stately British pomp and circumstance with the noisy, boisterous atmosphere of a slightly rowdy party. Here is a clip of Sir Edward Elgar’s arrangement of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s patriotic hymn, Jerusalem (a setting of the poem by William Blake), from the 2012 Last Night of the Proms. 

A few weeks ago, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra presented an exhilarating performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony at the Proms. Before each movement, in the clip below, Elder outlines the work’s autobiographical origins. Completed in 1911, the Symphony is outwardly dedicated to King Edward VII, who died the previous year. Elgar’s close friend and confidant Alice Stuart-Wortley and the death of another friend, Alfred E. Rodewald, seem to have provided deeper inspiration. In the score, Elgar makes a passing reference to Tintagel on the rugged coast of Cornwall in Southwestern England. It’s a location which similarly inspired Arnold Bax (1883-1953) to write this tone poem. The other significant extramusical reference in the score is a quote from Song, one of Shelley’s final poems, written in 1822:

Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
‘Tis since thou art fled away.

These are all interesting autobiographical details…clues to what was going on in Elgar’s mind as he wrote the Second Symphony. But put all of this aside, and you have pure music that stands on its own without a program. In the end, these details are not what make this music truly great.

Elgar’s Second Symphony is constructed with small motivic cells which seem to be restlessly and persistently searching for a way forward. These musical building blocks combine to create music which unfolds over the long arc of time. Dense chromatic harmony occasionally teeters on the edge of losing a tonal center. It’s a celebration of orchestral virtuosity, regal English majesty, and upward sonic sweep. The end of the first movement almost seems to take flight. But there are also moments where we suddenly find ourselves in a haunting and more intimate landscape. These unguarded, and sometimes troubling, glimpses of truth seem always to be lurking beneath the surface. The calm repose at the conclusion of the final movement is one of these moments. It’s not the triumphant climax we might have been expecting, but it’s the only way this symphony could have ended.

  1. Allegro vivace e nobilmente 2:27
  2. Larghetto 21:55
  3. Rondo 38:05
  4. Moderato e maestoso 48:46

The original recording is no longer available. Here André Previn’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra:

  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s recent recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony, conducted by Sir Mark Elder on Amazon.
  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s classic recording, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on iTunes.

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3 Responses to Elgar’s Second Symphony at the 2015 Proms

  1. Erik Ryding August 12, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    Many thanks for posting this superb performance of one of my favorite symphonies. Maestro Elder’s interpretation is marvelous–in the sense of being both commanding and flexible, but also in the sense that he brings out many of the subtle marvels in the music. The playing is astounding, and the balance in this thick-textured work is handled with extraordinary care, without sounding fussy. And the videography is fantastic.

  2. Geoffrey Terry August 24, 2015 at 5:23 am #

    What a pity that the sound sample sounds like AM radio, even worse.
    There is of course the contemporary total exclusion of phrasing, why? I ask.
    String players seem reluctant to lift the bow from the strings, and by doing so obviae any passion or romance.
    Geoffrey

  3. Fred Holtz August 25, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    Love this work. I think it is even superior to Elgar’s 1st Sym. both of which subjectively reflect the historic period they were written… in a cinematic sort of way (in the best sense) like Mahler! (I never understood why Sir Thomas Beecham disparaged them! He remarked they reminded him of a Victorian rail station or something like that! Well, at least he championed another great British composer, I refer to Delius of course.) I have a recording by Andrew Davis & the BBC. I remember a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony guest conducted by Andrew Davis many years ago of this work and it really bowled me over. Our BSO played it with great passion probably because of Davis’ inspired direction and partly I expect because it was a fresh unfamiliar work they usually don’t have the opportunity to perform very often!

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