Prior to getting this CD, I had a lukewarm reaction to Edward Elgar's music, with the exception of loving his great late Violin Sonata. (Midori has a terrific performance of that piece out on Sony, if you are looking for another outstanding release.) Getting this set, with John Barbirolli's recording of Elgar's two symphonies as well as two strong Bournemouth Symphony performances with other conductors, has led me to listen to Elgar's compositions in much more depth, and I have become a convinced fan. Elgar is an extremely sophisticated, inspired composer. His music is often brooding, sometimes bombastic, with thick textures, well-developed orchestration, and complex harmonic progressions typical of the late Romantic style. The composer who comes to mind as a stylistic analogue (I am not implying that there is necessarily a direct influence) is Johannes Brahms, although the scherzo of the 2nd symphony could almost come from Mahler.
The two Barbirolli recordings here date from the early 1960s and were done with two different orchestras, the Philharmonia for no. 1 and the conductor's own Halle Orchestra for no. 2. The recordings are famous -- and justly so. Barbirolli leads with energy, and has a sense for both the emotion and the overall structure of long compositions that one only sees in the truly outstanding conductors. I have been comparing the Barbirolli interpretations with Adrian Boult's, which for a long-time were the standard-setter for Elgar, and can say that I think the Barbirolli versions are just simply more affecting and richer than Boult's fine efforts. The key difference is in the realm of color - Barbirolli is much more interested in the orchestral balance and coloration put into the scores by Elgar, a very talented orchestrator, while Boult subdues coloristic elements for structural coherence and continuity. I also find Barbirolli to more successfully evoke Elgar's strong emotionality than the restrained Boult. In short, this is one of the finest orchestral recordings I have ever had the pleasure to hear and is a "must own" for serious classical music fans.
EMI has included two very good performances of shorter Elgar works as a plus. There is "In the South" from 1904, a Richard Strauss-like essay in orchestral energy performed by the Bournemouth Symphony with Constantin Silvestri as conductor. "In the South" is a 20-minute long orchestral showpiece in four connected movements. Though normally not one for brash, bombastic music, I've got to say I really enjoy this music. There's a passage in the first section based on four accented long notes that has stuck in my head since I first heard "In the South." Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra recorded "In the South" live for EMI and that recording is a tad more coherent than Silvestri's approach, but the version here is very good, and is also in better sound. Finally, there is the earliest piece in the set, the String Serenade from 1892, done by the Bournemouth Symphony with Norman del Mar conducting. This is an attractive work and is done well here.
The recorded sonics are very good, with what I think is a excellent remastering job done by EMI, although note that the volume has been boosted, which likely means a bit of dynamic compression at the top end.
I think I've been pretty clear. 5 stars for this set, which isn't enough.