Elgar's 2nd by Gardner & BBC

This frustrating release is emblematic of everything that's wrong with the classical music scene today. First question: why record this again? Granted, it's great music, but there have been so many recordings of it already, some quite recently. What's more, this same Chandos label already has a version, in surround-sound even!

But yeah yeah, I get it, it's how classical recordings work: capture the same music with different performers, quibble over which version is the best, etc. I have often been one of the quibblers after all, especially when the performance (and recording) makes the difference between music and mush, plus some music is so endlessly fascinating that no single recording can ever capture it fully.

Every musician has felt like Goldilocks: play it slower to reveal inner workings but lose the overall shape, pedal more for effect but smudge the harmonies, pedal less but dry up those same harmonies, and so on. The more clear your intention, the more insane you will go trying to make it sound that way. That has to be the case with Elgar's second, and not just because it's big and long. On the technical side, I can imagine its dark colorings being nullified by poor acoustics, orchestral imbalances, or less-than-stellar playing (or all of the above). And then there is the psychology of the piece, its emotional arc. That's the point of all that technical stuff after all, right? You would think. In this case, somebody slipped Goldilocks a valium.

I can't imagine a recording that captures more of the orchestral detail and color of this music, played by the orchestra and laid down by the engineers to a hyperbolic level of perfection, while capturing so little of its essence. There should be black shadows and lingering doubt dogging this music, but instead the whole thing comes off almost bucolic, like a very fine score for a romantic comedy. The emotional reticence becomes apparent from the start, but it's the second half where the lack of depth is most obvious, especially the finale. After multiple listens (to other recordings) and slow seeping into my head over time, I've come to see the last movement as something stupendous, one of those "best things ever". Not here, though. The contrast between the sunny exterior and the inner struggle is barely made, and the battle cry sounds more like "whee!". Instead of aching paroxysms of regret we get a wistful "oh well" and a shrug. The only upside to this release is the recording quality, so if they insist on a face for the cover it really should have been that of sound engineer Ralph Couzens, not the conductor. And seriously, folks, play out the scenarios: who would want to gift this disc to a friend, and invite questions like "who's that puffy white guy on the cover?" Only classical insiders who are trained to ignore throwaway cover art can abide this sort of thing. I'm sure it's tough with Elgar, but couldn't they at least try to make it cool?

In general, this album only adds to my growing distrust of anything from the BBC Symphony, especially if Gardner is at the helm, however nice the Chandos 5-channel recording might be, not to mention the orchestra's technical polish. The last thing classical music needs is emotional blandness.

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