Elgar at the piano
A Musical Tour of the Symphony

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From little acorns, mighty oaks grow. And from the tangled web of sketches that Elgar left behind, composer Anthony Payne has crafted the mighty oak that is to be known as the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony. Longer, at some 56 minutes, than either of the two symphonies Elgar himself completed, perhaps Payne's greatest achievement is to deliver a work that is unmistakably Elgarian in character - in structure, idiom and orchestration - making it impossible for the listener to determine where original Elgar is replaced or supplemented by Payne's own inventiveness. Only the opening of the first movement sounds uncharacteristic, yet this is one of only four short passages that Elgar himself completed in full score.

After that turbulent opening, which Elgar salvaged from his sketches for the oratorio The Last Judgement, a calmer bridging passage leads into an expansive romantic melody which Elgar linked to his feelings for violinist Vera Hockman. The opening theme returns, initially restrained but rapidly gathering force, again to give way to the bridging passage and the Vera Hockman theme. This now leads into a lengthy development section whose frequent shifts of mood between dreamy wistfulness and playful rumbustiousness is reminiscent of passages from Falstaff. Eventually, the turbulent theme returns, forcing its way through as if the conductor is struggling to remain in control of a tremendous energy. The sequence of bridging passage and romantic melody is repeated before a lengthy coda brings the movement to a close.

Elgar sketched the second movement in its entirety. Like the scherzos of the first two symphonies, it is considerably shorter than the symphony's other movements. It is throughout Elgar in a lighter vein. He took as his main theme the Banqueting Hall scene from the incidental music to Arthur, interspersing it with a more pastoral, meandering subject. At its third appearance, the banqueting becomes livelier, threatening unruliness, but nowhere does the movement develop the energy or hint at the dark forces unleashed in the earlier prestos. As the movement progresses, it is the pastoral mood that comes to dominate.

But the darker forces are not banned forever. While the romantic adagio of the first symphony and the funeral cortège that haunts the larghetto of the second symphony, though so different in motivation, both demonstrate an Elgarian opulence in the melody and orchestration, the adagio encountered here is unlike anything else in Elgar's entire output. Launched with an anguished cry of pain, an unremitting air of bleakness pervades all but a short passage late in the movement. The main theme gives way to a muted repetitive conveying images of a desolate wasteland and, when a tune is at last attempted, it is an insubstantial fragment that fails to gain a firm foothold. It evolves into a typically Elgarian sequence of descending chords that offer hope, but the mood of melancholy returns. The tune returns, this time achieving some of the sense of dignity afforded to the Second Symphony larghetto. But it is not until the reappearance of the tune, now swooping to great heights of passion from which burst forth the cascade of descending chords, that through the chill of Winter we see the portent of Spring.

The final movement return us to a more familiar Elgar of unquenchable optimism. It is heralded by a stark fanfare interspersed with scurrying strings which develop into a short sequence of staccato chords which prove to be the movement's binding motif. This leads into the second subject, another romantically inclined theme similar in mood to the opening of the finale of the second symphony. At this point, Elgar left no clue of how the movement was to develop. Forced to speculate, Payne returns to the Arthur music, choosing the finest of the themes from that score, the dramatic chivalric swoops of Sir Bedivere. This extensive exposition ends with a simple downward scale through the octaves set against a jaunty, almost childlike motif. We are afforded a brief glimpse of the wagon passing before the fanfare, now more hurried, less self confident, leads into a development-cum-recapitulation of all that has gone before.

Again with nothing from Elgar to guide him on how the movement and the symphony should end, Payne turns to The Wagon Passes, the most acclaimed of the short pieces that comprise the Nursery Suite, for a template - crescendo followed by diminuendo of a short repeated phrase as the wagon approaches then fades away into the distance. I have never shared others' enthusiasm for this vignette, even given the limitations of a miniature, but what Payne serves up is of a far higher calibre, a fitting coda for this epic symphony. As the tempo dies away, hushed strings hint at the mystery of what lies beyond the horizon, disappearing in a hardly perceptible stroke of a gong.

This short musical tour can provide no more than a taste of what the symphony holds. A full appreciation can only come from hearing the complete work, with a companion CD, in which Anthony Payne describes his work on the sketches, enabling a deeper understanding of the symphony. Details of how to purchase these CDs and the full score of the symphony, published by Boosey and Hawkes, can be found by following this link.

Continue to :

The Reconstruction - A Justification by Colin Matthews :
English Deutsch Français
An Introduction by Anthony Payne : English Deutsch Français
A Guide to Forthcoming Performances
Michael Kennedy reviews the CD Geoff Hodgkins reviews the Première
NMC - a mission to be heard EP3 - Now on Naxos
How to Order your copy of the CDs and score

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