Music that doesn't suck, No. 7: The British Are Coming!
For most, when they hear the name Elgar, only a small handful of pieces come to mind: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (there are six of them, FYI), the Enigma Variations (usually only the ninth variation, “Nimrod”), and the Cello Concerto. That’s a shame, truly. Not to take anything away from those pieces — they are each masterful in their own way, particularly the Cello Concerto — but Elgar was one of the last “greats” of the Late Romantic Era, and perhaps the last as far as the English composers are concerned. You could, of course, say Holst or Vaughan Williams; but I would argue that both of them, particularly Vaughan Williams, were prone to more Modernist tendencies. Elgar’s music fell out of fashion in the early 20th century and he lost his creative spark when his wife died in 1920, composing relatively little until his own death in 1934. His music remained unapologetically Romantic to the bitter end.
For me, his First Symphony is one of the great masterpieces of the genre, although you’d never think it judging solely by its number of performances. Elgar, like Brahms, didn’t complete his First Symphony until he was middle-aged — it was 1907-08, and Elgar was already in his fifties. Revered by the musical world at the time, it was well known that he had been planning a symphony for more than ten years, so the expectations and anticipation were extremely high. Elgar delivered. The First Symphony was an “immediate and phenomenal success,” but rarely appears on concert programs outside the UK, due to lack of familiarity and sheer difficulty. It’s been on my to-do list for some time now….
This performance by the London Symphony, conducted by the late Jeffrey Tate, is the best I’ve heard. You’ll notice it’s a cyclical work, so the noble opening theme comes back in grandiose fashion at the end of the final movement.