Conducting this all-Elgar programme is Sakari Oramo, the Finnish conductor who has been all but adopted by English music-lovers and orchestras - for ten years he was music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and since 2013 he holds the post as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
It was during the winter of 1900–01 that Elgar began to sketch what he hoped would turn into his first symphony. However, the sketches were quickly absorbed into several shorter pieces, one of which was the Cockaigne overture - an unashamedly populist portrait of ‘old London town'.
As for the First Symphony, seven years would pass before its première in Manchester and subsequent London performance.
Only the most cockeyed jingoist could fail to enjoy the affection and mastery on display in this scrupulously accurate reading of Elgar's First Symphony. Sakari Oramo takes a quasi-masochistic pleasure from Elgar's nervously over-marked score and proves along the way that, as Stravinsky insisted, musicians don't need to interpret, they just have to play what's written. It's easier said than done. Some say Elgar was compensating or allowing for his own uncomfortable experience as an orchestral violinist of limited talent. Had he had the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic at his disposal, he need not have worried. Playing the symphony straight only accentuates the strangeness and restlessness of its argument, conveying an acute sense of Elgar in his own time, a poet of a vanishing but not departed age, even a purveyor of an English expressionism: the climax to the first movement yields nothing to the more depressing pages of Sibelius in terms of stark intensity and severe harmony. Is there biting irony rather than pomp and circumstance to the hurried little march in the Scherzo? Oramo finds scant relief in the long, yearning phrases of the Adagio and pushes through the kaleidoscopic transformations of the finale once Elgar had settled on a theme, he was mighty reluctant to let it go to reach an apotheosis of rare satisfaction. Ennobled Brits such as Andrew Davis and Mark Elder notwithstanding, Oramo and his Swedish players have given us the Elgar cycle for our time. **** --Sinfini Music, 9/9/14