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Reviews: Elgar: Symphony No. 2, In The South - Hickox

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Reviews: 6

Site review by Castor August 23, 2005
Performance:   Sonics:    
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Site review by Polly Nomial November 10, 2005
Performance:   Sonics:    
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Review by John Manning August 25, 2005 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
Any review following Castor's excellent dissertation would be superfluous unless it disagreed with any aspect. Mine doesn't.
So why am I bothering? Firstly let me declare an interest in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales since its members were colleagues, and I have a huge respect for their talents. I feel I must pay homage to this, their latest achievement to reach my ears.
Part of my work entailed listening to them perform in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. I never felt the hall was ideal when full, but rather seemed to have a better reverberation when roughly half empty. I felt the recording made a very creditable attempt at representing the hall in ideal conditions, maintaining clarity throughout but with enough 'airiness' to make surround sound a big advance on stereo.
On first listening I loved everything except the opening of the symphony, which seemed a little fast. By second listening I had been so seduced by the rest that I had forgotten my first impression.
Slow passages have a languid quality whilst fast ones get the adrenalin flowing. Playing throughout was good enough to become transparent, and the music flowed through unhindered.
Dynamic and frequency range are natural and wide, and the last fortissimo staccato chord of the third movement lifted my spirits (and almost lifted me physically out of my seat!). While I agree that the overall level is low I can forgive this when I find no suspicion of dynamic compression.
The disc is very good value in terms of recorded time. One small point is that the surround sound is in 5.0 format, i.e. there is no subwoofer track. I have arranged for my SACD player to derive this, but would prefer 5.1 where my amplifier merely drives the speakers with what is recorded on the disc.
Perhaps someone from the recording industry will explain why 5.0 or 5.1 are chosen; does omitting the subwoofer track allow more music to be squeezed on to a disc? I would plead for 5.1 to be used whenever possible, and a clear indication of the format to be printed on the SACD cover (not always the case).
Well done to everyone concerned with this release. If you like Elgar, don't hesitate to buy it.

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Review by Jonty August 28, 2005 (2 of 4 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
The low level of the transfer had me fooled for a couple of plays. I would still like a bit more definition. More like the Bridge disc. I note that this is Chandos' first DSD recording made by the home team as opposed to the the ones engineered by John Newton in the States and Canada.

The performance reminds of Boult's last recording. Very level headed. Roll on a recording of the first symphony.

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Review by Oakland October 4, 2005 (8 of 10 found this review helpful)
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I’ve seen few, if any, impassioned pleas for works of Sir Edward Elgar to be committed to SACD. Well, in some respects he is one of my favorite composers. And it was with great anticipation that I purchased this Chandos release of Symphony #2 and “In the South”.
I believe I discovered Elgar in the early 80’s at the dawn of CD when there was a paucity of music in the new format and I was experimenting with new music much like I’ve done with SACD. And while I enjoy his music, some of it immensely, I am not an Elgar devotee. I own probably most of his major orchestral works, but few duplicates. And I am not familiar with his chamber works. I have been fortunate enough to hear live performances of Elgar’s Symphony #1 as well as “In the South”.

For me composers such as Barber, Copland, Gershwin, Ives, Grofe, Sousa, etc. define late 19th and early 20th century American classical music (at least as reflected in Anglo-Saxon middle America). When I listen to their works I see red, white, and blue, apple pie, baseball, Wyatt Earp, movie reels, marching bands, and so forth. Likewise music of composers like Bax, Moeran, Bridge, Vaughn Williams, Walton sharply portrays British life and landscape. But for me and, perhaps for many, the music of Elgar most splendidly illustrates the symbolic tenets of what is Great Britain (to me). More than any other British composer when I listen to his music, I see coronations, abdications, Knightstbridge, pomp, left side driving, English countryside, Yorkshire pudding, Buckingham Palace, commencements, horse drawn carriages, Bentley, lavish royalty and even Indian cuisine.

Among his many strengths Elgar, unlike any composer that I am aware of, was a master of dexterously interweaving the lower registers (midrange on down) of the orchestra with a deft that other composers seem to best manage only with the higher octaves. Bruckner works that I’m familiar with are ponderous by comparison. Elgar’s use of the orchestra in this way is done in complete concert with the music. The percussion as powerful as it often is rarely, if ever, startles the listener, never disfigures the music, but it is, if your system is able to deliver the goods, visceral to the core, at the same time primordial but refined, and always elegantly royal.

Thus far my comments, it would seem, have been all about my expectations of an Elgar composition and nothing specific about this Chandos SACD recordings of Symphony #2 and “In the South”. But actually my comments thus far *have* been about these recordings. These recordings form the very basis of my comments heretofore. These performances are extremely well done and exceed my expectations of what Elgar should sound and feel like. I’m certainly not saying that these performances are “definitive”. I don’t know enough about the music nor have I heard enough other performances to come even close to making that kind of judgment. And I know nothing about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales or the conductor Richard Hickox who perform these works. Many of my other Elgar compositions are conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson leading the Scottish National Orchestra. I have not directly compared the Wales performers with the Scots but I believe the performances are comparable. I do believe there is a vernacular musicianship here that says throughout these performances “I’m British, deal with it” and they splendidly convey Elgar in the process.

“In the South” is one of my favorite short pieces by any composer. What more can I say that I haven't said already? At about 21 minutes in length it is the filler on this disc. The only problem with Symphony #2 is that it is not Symphony #1 that I find more inventive, more enjoyable, and more royal. Symphony #1 is probably Elgar at his pinnacle with regard to his symphonies. But #2 has enough of the “right stuff”, and plus it being coupled with “In the South” means that I will reach for this disc often as I have for the last week.

The recording quality is top drawer. I listened to the multi-channel layer. (For reasons of sound quality I only listen to the multi-channel layer of classical music. But my experience has been if the multi-channel is technically correct the two-channel layer is probably also technically correct). The surround channels do not call attention to themselves unless you lean back in your chair to the point of almost falling over. Yet there are plenty of decibels emitting from the surrounds. In other words, the blend is just about flawless.

The only notable issue, a potentially important issue, with this disc has to do with the recording level. I have probably never experienced a recording cut at such a low level. The dynamics of the music, while great, do not necessitate such conservative recording levels. This means that you really have to crank up the volume to obtain realistic listening levels. This is important lest the sonics come across as ordinary and the performance unimaginative. I have ample headroom in my system. My line stage has a LED that alerts me to when I’m within 6 db of full throttle. Only when I’m showboating do I reach that LED. I’m usually at least 10db below max even at the highest sound pressure levels. But with this disc I had to open up all the way before I backed down a bit. This is a bit scary because of the prospects that I could inadvertently forget that the volume level was at a dangerously high level when playing the next disc.

Aside from that caveat I highly recommend this disc both for performance and recording quality.

Robert C. Lang

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Review by big sur August 25, 2011 (2 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Bloom off the rose?

I often see Polly Nomial and Castor's reviews following each other. Why is this? Competition? Mutual respect? Anyway it makes me smile and I do appreciate some of the recommendations from the both of you.
Now about the Hickox Elgar. This SACD's reviews on the internet are all over the place and remind one of the comment more than a few have made that " sooner than someone praises a recording, than someone cans it." James Leonard at allmusic believes the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was not up to the task on this recording. Andrew Clements over at the Guardian rag likes it enough to say it can join other esteemed versions, and Mr.David Hurwitz at classicstoday just really doesn't care for it much at all. When I heard the recording the first time I thought it was pretty good. The recording quality was good. After each review outside of those on sacd-net I found subsequent replays to be less satisfying. How sad my initial convictions are so easily altered by professional criticism.

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