ELGAR/PAYNE: Symphony No. 3

ELGAR/PAYNE Symphony No. 3 – Andrew Davis, cond; BBC SO – NMC D053 (56:10)

It seems to me that the question of whether the piece of music on this disc represents what Elgar would have written is pointless and irrelevant. It is obvious that the piece that results from one musician’s treatment of sketches left by another cannot be regarded as part of the latter’s body of work. On the other hand, to insist that such efforts “should not” be undertaken seems equally pointless and futile, in much the same way that the assertion that, say, research into genetic manipulation “should not” be undertaken is futile.

Tempting scientific, intellectual, or artistic challenges will always be pursued, whether one likes it or not. With regard to “completing” unfinished musical works, many factors are involved. A work that is more or less complete up to the point where the composer leaves it is a different case from that in which a work is structurally complete, except for, say, orchestration, which is again totally different from the situation in which one is left only undeveloped thematic material, with or without some cryptic or explicit suggestions as to how such material might be handled — as the composer imagines at that non-definitive moment. Each instance must be understood differently.

What is most important when approaching situations of this kind is that the historical facts be made known, and the more data available the better. With such information kept in mind, the result may prove to be fascinating, illuminating, and/or enjoyable, and, after all, aren’t those the points that matter?

Then there is the additional matter of the quality or potential quality of the sketches themselves. In the case of the work at hand, Elgar left 130 pages of sketches, including some material taken from other late works, both complete and incomplete. These sketches comprise basic thematic material for all four movements of the planned symphony. But do they represent, as some have suggested, the half-hearted groping of an exhausted creative talent, or are they, as Anthony Payne asserts, truly inspired germinal ideas whose fulfillment required more strength than Elgar could bring to bear at the time?

What makes the case of the “Elgar/Payne Symphony No. 3” especially illuminating is that Elgar’s actual sketches have been published and recorded, and that even Payne’s thoughts and processes have also been made available to the public. The result, therefore, is indeed — at the least — a wonderful opportunity to experience “the final thoughts of a great composer,” in the words of annotator Colin Matthews. Furthermore, by examining the sketches, we can see that Elgar left not only the basic thematic material, but also a fair amount of its elaboration, some indication of the course the work would take, and even some fully orchestrated passages. Much of what Payne supplied is “connective tissue,” although the last two movements required a good deal of development as well, and, significantly, the last movement needed an actual conclusion, and thus, a vision of the work’s finality. So what we are hearing in the finished product is quite substantially Elgar’s own music. On the other hand, Anthony Payne has done an extraordinarily skillful and sensitive job in capturing Elgar’s language and style, maintaining a consistently plausible tone throughout. In fact, at first hearing the listener may note musical ideas that seem somewhat outside the composer’s customary usage: the parallel fifths that figure prominently in the work’s opening theme, for example, and a sequence of parallel seventh-chords in the finale. Yet both ideas are found in Elgar’s own sketches.

So what is the resulting piece of music like and how satisfying is it as a listening experience? First, I must say that the process of becoming acquainted with the sketches and with Payne’s elaboration of them into a full four-movement symphony has been intensely pleasurable and compelling, seducing me into spending far more time with it than I had originally intended, and leaving me enormously fond of much of it.

Although those fifths at the beginning were initially startling, the first movement has the familiar Elgar swagger, with a second theme whose peculiar poignancy is unique to the composer. In form, texture, and content, the movement is rather simple, straightforward, and conventional, relative to the corresponding movements of the first two symphonies. Indeed, this appears to have been Elgar’s explicit intention, according to comments attributed to him.

The scherzo that follows is more in the character of an intermezzo. The movement left most fully complete by Elgar, it is light in texture and amiable in tone — closer to the style of his salon music than of his symphonic works.

It is the third and fourth movements, however, that I have really grown to love. The slow movement is a beautiful and deeply moving elegy, with some surprisingly chromatic harmonic twists that move it almost in the direction of, say, Verklärte Nacht. Its tone of noble solemnity also calls Bruckner to mind, eventually reaching Mahlerian depths of despair, without ever relinquishing its English dignity and propriety.

Although given short shrift by some commentators, the Finale is for me the most interesting movement of the symphony. Works completed through the development or elaboration of incomplete substantive material by another hand are subject to a built-in limitation: In attempting to produce a work that is convincing as an example of what the composer “might have done,” the “elaborator” relies on precedent — i.e., how the composer handled such situations in previous works — for guidance. The result, then, cannot help but be relatively “conservative,” in the sense of conforming to past practices, when, in fact, a great composer tends to break with his own precedents in one way or another with each new major work. This is one reason that such hybrids are hardly ever as impressive as the composer’s finest works. With just an exposition of thematic material to work with, Payne had to face this dilemma and make a decision about the symphony’s destination — conceptually as well as substantively — in order to bring it to an end. What he did was brilliantly inspired in that he turned to precedents to lead him in a bold and startling direction. The movement actually begins with a clumsy, flat-footed pomposity as it introduces a rather conventional first theme. However, for his second theme group, Elgar turned to some incidental music he had written ten years earlier for Binyon’s historical drama Arthur— a gloriously stirring melody that evolves through a variety of treatments until it appears like a hushed, unearthly vision. After this exposition comes a perfectly respectable development, followed by the expected recapitulation. But here Payne leads the second theme to a coda that borrows an idea used by Elgar to very different effect in the fifth movement of his little Nursery Suite of 1930, in which a simple ostinato pattern begins softly, gradually grows louder, then recedes, suggesting the approach, then gradual disappearance, of a wagon. Payne takes a similar motif from the finale, and treats it in the same manner, bringing the work to a mysterious end, like a journey of Elgar’s symphonic ego into the unknown.

I am sure that reactions to this symphonic step-child will differ widely. But I am equally sure that no Elgarian will fail to be fascinated by it.