In Autumn 2001, Colin Davis conducted an Elgar season with the London Symphony Orchestra, capturing the concerts on CD for the award-winning label LSO Live. They gave the Elgar/Payne Symphony No. 3 a week before Christmas. The stark, toiling first theme of the opening movement feels like an old man trudging through the snow lugging a heavy sledge behind him. Davis imparts a sense of gliding weight, of solid purpose without destination. The story of the symphony is well-known: Elgar died leaving only an incomplete short score (which the composer Anthony Payne completed in 1997)--solid purpose without realisation. The old man's mind wanders to a lovely and very different second theme, a lightly stepping female to which Davis allows beauty its own purpose. He shapes a sensuous minuet of the second movement.
Of the three recordings yet made of this symphony, the LSO's takes preference by its profoundly tragic account of the slow movement, Adagio solenne. Here there is purpose and destination, a feeling that all life ends in bleak despair. The following brassy fanfare, which announces the finale, suggests a grim determination to stiffen the sinews and face the 1930s. One senses Elgar's heart was not in it. The petering last pages Payne composed himself. The pianissimo gong-splash which ends the work sounds as unsure here as elsewhere. Nevertheless, this remains the best recording yet of Elgar's unfinished. --Rick Jones
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