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Newfangled Elgar

Commentary: Robert Payne's 'elaboration' of the English composer's sketches for his Third Symphony is not only musically defensible, it's authentically Elgarian.

March 29, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Perhaps it's just millennial blues, but we seem to be having a bit more trouble than usual letting go of our century's favorite figures. Browsing in a book store the other day, for instance, I noticed a new mystery novel in which Groucho Marx is, with full permission of the Groucho estate, the detective. And on the shelves of the record stores you can now find a CD imported from England that contains a brand-new symphony by the beloved English composer Edward Elgar, completed 54 years after his death. The Elgar family has permitted Anthony Payne to fashion something out of the fragments for a Third Symphony.

Badgered for a new symphony by George Bernard Shaw, Elgar began it in 1933. But diagnosed with and dying of incurable cancer at the end of that year, Elgar instructed his close friend, violinist W.H. Reed, to burn the sketches. Reed, who had played some fragments from the proposed symphony with the composer, served history instead, and published extended excerpts of them in his book "Elgar as I Knew Him."

And now, thanks to the ministrations of Payne, a 61-year-old British composer, broadcaster, musicologist and critic, we have a Symphony No. 3 if not the Symphony No. 3. On Feb. 15 at Royal Festival Hall, Andrew Davis conducted the BBC Symphony (the BBC had originally commissioned the piece from Elgar) in its first performance. A recording with the same performers has been rushed out by NMC Recordings.

Advance word of the project was greeted with skepticism and, among many Elgarians, alarm. Unless a work is fully mapped out (as was Mahler's Tenth Symphony, which primarily lacked orchestration at the time of his death), these enterprises are almost guaranteed to fail. In recent years we have had Schubert symphonies completed from the kinds of fragments that Elgar left, and there was even a Beethoven Tenth, but they have not caught on. Elgar had been crystal-clear about the fate of his symphony in progress: "No one must tinker with it," he told Reed.

And yet from the reactions to the Elgar Third, the doubters seem to have been won over. The premiere got favorable reviews. The audience for it has been hugely enthusiastic. "I love it to bits," a fan wrote on the Internet the other day. Eighty copies of the score were sold at the first concert, according to the work's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, an unheard-of quantity. The recording, released in England the day of the concert, immediately sold out its first 10,000 copies and NMC has rushed to re-press.

And, yes, what the British have been saying about the symphony turns out to be quite true. Elgar revivified works.

If this is not the symphony that Elgar would have written, no one, least of all Payne, is pretending it is. A companion CD has been released in which Payne describes exactly what Elgar left behind and what Payne did with it. "Elaborated"--the word being used to describe Payne's contribution--is too modest. He used the sketches in the way they best seemed to fit together, thinking of the fragments as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He went to other Elgar sources, as the composer himself had indicated he planned to do to fill out the work. But in the end he had to map the symphony and compose a considerable amount himself. So he went ahead and did it, in a mood of homage to Elgar.

There are a number of reasons, I think, why this symphony is as affecting as it is. But the main one is that Elgar did write just enough to give the 56-minute work an authentic ring. Although he orchestrated only the opening bars, Elgar completed the exposition section of the first movement, and that exposition is magnificent. The symphony begins boldly with an epic sweep--the vision of British Empire that will live on forever, if only in the imagination. The second theme is the purest of Elgarian lyricism--that late autumn, burnished glow of a dying Romanticism.

Three more decent-size chunks throughout the four movements offer unmistakable evidence of the composer's personality. Beyond that there are only small bits and pieces. Payne, however, is helped enormously by the fact that Elgar had planned all along to borrow from an unfinished oratorio, "The Last Judgment," and some obscure incidental music he had written for a historical drama, "Arthur," by Laurence Binyon.

That Payne succeeds where other symphonic archeologists have failed is due, in part, to the fact that Elgar was hardly a master of structure on the level of Schubert or Beethoven or Mahler. Elgar was a long-winded composer, especially in his development sections, and his large works are not especially interesting formally. His two completed symphonies are overblown. But Payne has a surer grip of long-range goals than Elgar did. It's the personality that matters, and Payne also shows he has a knack for mimicking Elgar's sound.

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