Elgar's 2nd by Petrenko & Liverpool

Music is universal, sort of. I mean, could a teenager ever get this music? Elgar's 2nd is a hard nut to crack to begin with, but I can't imagine it being comprehensible to someone with less emotional experience.

Beyond form and color, or through it, this music presents a contrast between a triumphal public face and internal turmoil. The very first notes introduce this pattern with a doubtful hold, as if hesitatiting to march out on stage. Throughout all four movements, what's inside asserts itself by pressing up from underneath or by diverting the music into a dream.

It was the first movement that I found fascinating at first, but now it's the last movement that's the most amazing to me. Here again what's going on outside (like a walk in the sunny countryside complete with twittering birds), is tuned out as the music turns inward. A kind of struggle ensues, like in grief or heartbreak where you reach for every way to deny the truth, developing into a full-blown battle with the peal of a trumpet. While in some music the model of acceptance is "anger, anger, anger, subside into peace", what happens here is less simplistic: the path to acceptance is interrupted first by waking back to the exterior — to the beautiful sunny reality that was there all along — and then by paroxisms of anguished pleading, as if to yell "please no!" even as the truth is clear.

More than once I've had the experience of listening to a piece of music but not hearing it, feeling that there is something left un-revealed by the particular performance. Elgar's 2nd symphony is an example. It tends to sound like sludge. If I were a conductor I would hesitate to play it in the first place; it would be so easy to screw up, and the orchestra would have to be top-notch. I've gone through a number of performances, but this one digs the deepest (I haven't heard them all of course). It's a new recording, and the sonics are pretty good but not great — I only wish this were in surround sound with the kind of recording clarity that labels like Channel Classics and BIS regularly pull off. In any case, this music well rewards repeated listening. Let it sink in. Circle back later.

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