Saturday, 11 March 2017

Elgar: Daniel Barenboim versus Vasily Petrenko

I rarely indulge in head-to-head comparisons. Either a performance convinces me, or it does not. And there are many way to skin a cat, so very different performances of the same work can often be equally valid. I greatly admired the recent recording of Elgar's second symphony (Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic) but, so far, mine is the only opinion I have come across. I did notice a number of critics expressing great enthusiasm for Daniel Barenboim's recording of the work with Staatskapelle Berlin, so I decided to acquire the latter and to see what all the fuss was about. My tasting notes on my head-to-head listening are as follows:

First Movement: Allegro vivace e nobilmente: Barenboim 18:28. Petrenko 19:14

Barenboim makes big difference between the allegro and slower sections – a bit like John Barbirolli. The music almost becomes becalmed at times. Petrenko integrates the different sections and moods better, being a bit slower over all, but then the slower sections can be faster than with Barenboim. The Liverpool brass and woodwind shine better than the Berliners. Overall the sound is better with Petrenko (Onyx) than with Barenboim (Decca). There is more nobilmente with Petrenko, and Barenboim's tempo changes get on my nerves. There used to be a similar contrast between Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli in this movement, with Barbirolli killing it with love.

Second Movement: Larghetto. Barenboim 14:01. Petrenko 15:04

One of Elgar's loveliest movements, and the Liverpudlians are obviously playing their hearts out. Again, Barenboim has problems establishing a basic pulse; the music frequently becomes becalmed. The superior Liverpool brass and woodwind (or recording thereof) greatly favours Petrenko's performance.

Third Movement: Rondo – Presto. Barenboim 8:01. Petrenko 7:58

The return of the throbbing nightmare is well handled by Barenboim, and is quite dramatic. The timings are identical: Barenboim's basic tempo is a shade faster, but he loses time in slamming on the brakes from time to time. As throughout the music to date, Petrenko and the Liverpudlians give the impression of knowing exactly where they are going. Barenboim and the Berliners often seem to be exploring and finding their way through an unfamiliar environment.

Fourth Movement: Moderato e maestoso. Barenboim 15:31. Petrenko 16:50

By now my views were pretty clear. Barenboim and his Berliners do come out fighting in the fifteenth round, and the finale is the best of their four movements; particularly the impressive final minute. But by then, it's too late. A clear win for the Russian and his valiant Liverpudlians, on points. I have always been impressed with Vasily Petrenko, who seems to me to be an exceptionally talented and musical conductor. He understands the importance of pulse in symphonic music. I have never taken to Daniel Barenboim. His recording of the Elgar will be shelved and will gather dust; Petrenko will be taken down whenever I want to listen to Elgar's second symphony.

After two hours listening to the two versions: what a magnificent twentieth century symphony this is! Well done Vasily Petrenko, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Onyx recording team … and Edward Elgar.

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