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The lost symphony…

Stuart Millson makes a personal journey through Elgar’s unfinished symphony. His starting point is a review of a Proms concert from the 2004 season.

Elgar Symphony No. 3, elaborated by Anthony Payne. Given at the Henry Wood Proms by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

When I first heard Elgar's Third Symphony, commissioned by the BBC in 1932, and reconstructed from the composer's sketches by the modern composer and music-writer, Anthony Payne, I was sceptical... Elgar had only "written", or completed part of the work - the remainder existed as fragments, and seemed to be completed by Anthony Payne in the spirit of educated guesswork. I felt that some of the symphony was not "not quite" Elgar, and I was surprised to find some some of his Arthurian incidental music (the lighter Elgar) “recycled” in the second and last movements.

However, the symphony has grown on me, and I have completely revised my opinion. I attended not only the premiere at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, but Davis's subsequent performance at the Proms; Sir Colin Davis's performance at the Barbican with the LSO (of which Elgar was principal conductor); and (best of all) Leonard Slatkin's utterly unforgettable, breathtaking reading (with the Philharmonia) which gave a completely new face and scale to the music. I only regret not having heard the Welsh premiere of the work, conducted by that first-rate Elgarian, Owain Arwel Hughes, OBE, artistic director of the Welsh Proms.

Anthony Payne claimed that when he set about putting the pieces of the symphonic jigsaw together, he seemed to be "directed by forces" outside of himself. Fate seemed to intervene throughout, with Payne suddenly waking up in an American hotel room, realising at last the key to the completion of one crucial section of the work. Elgar originally wanted the symphonic sketches to be destroyed, and for years the composer’s family stood firmly by Sir Edward’s wish that nobody should tackle the reconstruction. However, Anthony Payne pressed on, convinced that a great work lay buried here...

The latest Proms performance by the BBC Scottish was extremely impressive, the symphony's uneasy, "grinding" opening, leading into the usual Elgarian symphonic storm and stress. The second movement seems to return to the Elgar of "The Wand of Youth", and we find ourselves in rural Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Welsh border country - the places where Elgar’s spirit must truly roam. The third movement is dark and Mahlerian, but does not quite achieve the "heroic melancholy" (W.B. Yeats's phrase) of his other symphonic slow movements. (Those familiar with Elgar's choral work, The Spirit of England, may just recognise a shadow of the piece in the slow movement.)

The finale, as the programme note stated, launches us into a world of "chivalric action", with a huge fanfare preparing the grand sweep of the last movement - energetic, striding, march-like music (again, with themes taken up from "King Arthur"), which then gives way to a nocturnal world of sinister side-drum taps, and the last brush of the gong... Absolute silence reigned in the hall as the last echoes of the music wafted away into the air - carrying with them Elgar's last will and testament.

Anthony Payne was present on the night and received a huge cheer. Payne is an interesting and remarkable figure, a modernist in music, yet a passionate devotee of Elgar and Vaughan Williams - and the conservative, yet radical Frank Bridge. His biographical note stated that, as a student, Payne wrestled with a dilemma - trying to reconcile the High-Romantic Englishness of Elgar, with the demands of the new continental avant-garde. Perhaps Payne has at last found solace in his astonishing realisation of Elgar's last work.

Some personal Elgar recommendations, available on CD:

Piano Quintet
(played by the Sorrel Quartet and Ian Brown, piano);

Enigma Variations, In the South, Serenade for Strings
(Philharmonia, Giuseppe Sinopoli);

Symphonies 1 & 2
(London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bryden Thomson);

Pomp & Circumstance Marches 1-5, Symphony No. 1
(London Philharmonic, Vernon Handley);

Suite from King Arthur, The Starlight Express
(Bournemouth Sinfonietta, George Hurst);

Coronation Ode, The Spirit of England
(Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson);

Symphony No. 3
(BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis);

The Dream of Gerontius
(New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult);

The Kingdom
(London Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Slatkin).

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