A few steps off the beaten track,
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This review is from: Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance (Marches Nos. 1-6) (Audio CD)
When I first heard that Vladimir Ashkenazy had turned his fairly far reaching attention to Elgar, I must admit my first thought was "Uh oh! Leave the perhaps most quintessentially English composer since Purcel to the tender mercies of an apparently omnipresent Rrrrussian pianist. Cruisin' for a bruisin', are we? But when in Rome ..." (though Sydney is perhaps not exactly the Rome of the Commonwealth, I'd say close enough for jazz). OK, Ashkenazy is also a fine conductor, but very few non-anglophones have done Elgar over the last century of recorded music and got away with it. Daniel Barenboim counts as an exception, as his only relation to things British was that he married one (rest in peace, JdP); Bernard Haitink does as well, though, after 35 years in London (1967-2002) and a KBE he is perhaps more British than many born and bred in the isles. Still, a fresh view can be quite a blessing at times, and as I hear it a fresh view is precisely what this issue represents.
I'll get around to reviewing the two symphonies some other time. At this juncture, suffice to say that they are well done and well recorded, though arguably not of a stature to unseat Barbirolli or Haitink. The reason The Pomp and Circumstance Marches have caught my interest is primarily that though they can't exactly be catalogued as masterpieces, conventions about their performance are so maddeningly strict. As is the case with the waltzes by Johann Strauss there seems to be only one approach: the right one - and like fine wine they tend to travel badly. In that light it is little short of a wonder that Ashkenazy manages to dust off these imperial golf trophies and, from the other side of the globe, no less, present them newly minted - complete with the smell of car fresh off the assembly line. Some of them are played as if Ashkenazy never heard the music before (which I deem unlikely), and his refusal to build up to the climax of the great anthem of the hallowed first march is blissfully refreshing (no soccer fans joining in here), and reminds one that the music was actually written a year before - and not intended for - the song ("Land of Hope and Glory"). Also the famous centre themes of the fourth and fifth marches are stripped of every hint of moist eyes and saccharine and played with the smooth discipline of a military exercise. Never really made for marching, I suspect (at least I shouldn't care to try), these pieces demand a malleability when it comes to tempo that will turn them gooey in the wrong hands. Ashkenazy chooses to stress their proud and - dare I say - slightly belligerent sides and thereby, in my opinion, spotlights a shine of Victorian nobility that is truely imperial. The sixth march (completed from sketches by Anthony Payne) is markedly different from the rest; all hints of Sunday brass bands are dispensed with from the word go and the mood seems rather dark and somehow closer to the empire of "Star Wars" than the "Empire of Good Intentions". Still, late Elgar was often quite a tangy experience compared to early Elgar, and the music certainly is well constructed. The Serenade for Strings is played very beautifully and with great sensitivity - the perfect draught after close to fourty minutes of standing to attention.
The technical quality of this Exton SACD is absolutely first class, and as the music undeniably tends more towards display than depth of emotion, a recording that is full (but not booming) and crystal clear (but not metallic) is that much more of a plus.
All in all a most enjoyable disc that deserves a place near the top of a not exactly extensive list of recordings of these invigorating miniatures.