I guess Elgar gets his rep because he was perhaps the first really notable British composer in some time – or up until that point, I don’t really know. But I think that reputation is inflated – at least based on my earliest listens to his music – by the general Anglophilia that is a consequence of Britain once ruling much of the world, and of growing up in an English-speaking society.
Because frankly, when I put this stuff beside Debussy or Mahler or other great composers’ works of the first decade or so of the 20th century I find this to be a little underwhelming. The first in particular also sounds like it belongs in another century. Maybe this is unfair. Maybe we do have to take into account the lack of a great English high art music tradition in the 19th century and not hold that against Elgar, but I have to say my initial impressions are that I wasn’t missing much when I didn’t know who he was (save “Pomp and Circumstance” of course).
Symphony No. 1 in A♭ major, Op. 55 (1908)
The first symphony is the kind of thing I can like if I turn my brain off, as it’s full of pleasing musical passages of the kind found in so much High Romantic music. I really like this stuff in general, as there’s something about lush orchestration played with feeling that really appeals to me.
It is also unique, apparently, as it’s the only symphony in A Flat which is still performed. (I don’t know how true that actually is.)
But this is an inherently conservative work that pales in comparison to what Mahler or even the Scandinavians were doing at the same time.
Symphony No. 2 in E♭ major, Op. 63 (1911)
People say this one has some hints of Mahler and Wagner. I don’t know Wagner well at all, so I can’t say for certain, but I’m not sure how much Mahler I hear. If there is anything, I’d sure like to be able to spot it.
Because from the get-go, that opening movement, this sounds, if anything, even more conservative than the first symphony. You know what, that’s not fair. It’s the very opening notes that sound conservative to me, but if I’m being fair, what follows really cannot be criticized for being too conservative – there is too much pulling at the edges of what would be considered acceptable then. Really, the more I listen to it the more I think it’s probably better than the first symphony. Just shows, I shouldn’t rush to judgment.