ELGAR: The sketches for Symphony No. 3, elaborated by Anthony Payne.
Bernard Shaw nagged Elgar for 14 years after Sir Edward retreated into miniatures, following the death of his mothering wife Alice in 1919, urging projects on him that the bereft composer rejected. The recently established BBC commissioned a Third Symphony from him in 1932, but all that was left when Elgar died of cancer in 1934 was a pile of sketches. Despite his instructions to destroy all materials (including jottings for a piano concerto and sketches for an opera, The Spanish Lady, based on Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass), flame-keepers kept everything intact. But the composer's estate would not allow anything to be amplified or tinkered with, perhaps having heard such bastardizations as "Schubert's 10th Symphony" reconstructed by one Brian Newbould, or the "first movement of Beethoven's 10th," likewise from a few jottings, by an even cheekier Brit nonentity.
This reconstruction craze was validated by Deryck Cooke's completions (I and II) of Mahler's sketches for a Tenth Symphony, which followed by 15 years Tibor Serly's completion of Bartók's Third Piano Concerto (a matter of only 17 bars) and his virtual composition from sketches of a Viola/Cello Concerto commissioned by William Primrose. When the Elgar estate realized that only a decade remained before everything became public domain, they asked Anthony Payne in 1995 to try his hand with surviving materials on the Third Symphony, although nothing had been written for the finale. Boosey & Hawkes published his labor of love to coincide with the monstrously hyped premiere on February 15, 1998, by Andrew Davis and BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Britcrix almost to a man fell into step, in much the way that Americrix went ape over Ives' Fourth Symphony, when a chaotic agglomeration of materials had been collected, edited and finally performed in the mid-'60s. Over here, Leonard Slatkin gave the U.S. premiere of the putative Elgar Third with the National Symphony Orchestra. Now, thanks to Naxos, we have this budget-price issue of an excellent performance that overrides anything pricier for a piece that remains a hybrid.
That said, let me add that Payne's "elaboration" of "the sketches" is in the tradition of Cooke's Mahler rather than Newbould's Schubert or Beethoven by him-who-shall-remain-nameless. Elgar wrote the first 17 bars in full score -- good start! Payne's painstaking assembly of piano sketches (mainly) for the symphony, as well as other works in the vein, is dedicated and ingenious without smacking of a stunt. If the end result will not remind you of the First or Second Symphonies, created at the peak of Elgar's powers, enough of it "sounds like Elgar" to make us sad that the elderly Edwardian hadn't juice enough left in him to leave some kind of completion, if only a piano sketch of the whole.
Paul Daniel is an up-and-coming British conductor, music director of the English National Opera since 1997, following seasoning with Opera North and the English Northern Philharmonia. The Bournemouth players give all that he asks (I can't imagine that dull Andrew Davis was as inspiriting). Tony Faulkner has done a typically fine job of engineering in the Guildhall at Southampton, and Robin Golding's annotation is wonderfully detailed. Another Naxos winner.