There are two mutually incompatible approaches to Elgar, which might be characterised as "urgent and dramatic" and "leisurely and majestic". I have not heard Elgar's own readings, from which the "urgent" maestros - e.g. Boult, Solti, Davis - draw their legitimation. But I know that he liked Barbirolli's ways, who is certainly "majestic". So is Thomson in the album under review.
Elgar's symphonies can stand both kinds of treatment and reveal different, though equally valuable facets, in both approaches. In fact, I prefer Boult to Barbirolli; and Thomson to Solti. So the disparity runs right through my own appreciation of the music!
But on the whole, my perception about Elgar's music is that it has a "soft" inner core. It is not innately heroic, nor overtly masculine, but romantic in a way that harks back to Schumann, Saint-Saens, Bruch, Massenet - a mix between bourgeois sentiment and cosmopolitan brilliance of expression that finds its apogee in Elgar. Accordingly I find that Elgar's melodies (which self-deprecatingly he calls "tunes" and rebutted one critique with the observation that vulgarity is a state of mind, not an objective fact) require a certain amplitude to make their impact to the full. Solti for one seems to me too rushed in this respect. The dramatic aspect, predominantly in his tumultuous climaxes, can make its point both ways. But I think the heart of Elgar is melody; a conductor who pays insufficient attention to them is, to my mind, missing the essence of it.
Coming to the performance in hand, I find that the most convincing presentation of No. 1 (and utterly magnificent, from the orchestral point of view) is by Davis in his Dresden recording - all the more remarkable for being a live performance. It supplanted my previous favourite Boult, by a small margin. Nevertheless, I feel that Thomson, in his emphasis on a broad panoramic vision, tells an epic tale in which, due to the somewhat attenuated urgency of proceedings, has more to offer in terms of his meticulous observance of all the gorgeous inner details of which there are so many in Elgar's score. I feel that the logic of progress is improved by the wide dynamics; that we have not merely two layers (broadly loud and soft), but a gradation of several, in which the woodwinds are given space to narrate of colour their scenes, and where the brass - so often mere background colour - can blast its way to the forefront and exploit the enormous gulf of contrasts to make their point all the more shatteringly.
Above all, the slow movement is songful as no other I've known. With the grand scope of the whole performance, this Largo is not an episode of rest between tumults, but a continuation of the prevailing spirit, revealed here in its yearning rather than rebellious or rustic or ceremonial mood.
Symphony No. 2 has a stylistic twin in Barbirolli's Hallé recording. Once again, it is the slow movement that I find the most impressive, the tragedy and (public!) mournful aspect handled to perfection by the conductor. But here is one instance where the very first bracket of movt. 1 will either persuade or dissuade you. The massive, ample, measured yet strongly propulsive statement gives pretty much the scope of the performance away. Taken as a pair, the finale of No. 2 sets a particularly eloquent seal on all the vicissitudes of these great works.
The other two works are trifles and gratefully received as gifts. They do not affect my assessment of the album, although they are also beautifully played.
The recording is as ample as the performance. I keep stressing that this is my personal reaction, but I would urge you to test it yourself. I have 12 recordings of both works in my collection. By reason of this close familiarity I will end by saying that Thomson's reading is one of three favourites; which is but another way of saying: indispensable.