The "big tune" of the first movement in Elgar's Symphony No. 1 usually conjures an image of Leslie Howard, resplendent in a uniform and white gloves, making protestations of love to a bejeweled and tiaraed Merle Oberon. This achingly nostalgic melody, rising from the bottom of the strings and reaching an apotheosis in the full orchestra, overcomes you with gratitude that you are British -- until it dawns on you that you're not!
Long before he came on stage last night in Meyerhoff Hall to conduct the Elgar First with the Baltimore Symphony, conductor David Zinman must have realized that he's no Brit. His taut, compelling performance never surrendered to the temptation to linger in the first movement's self-indulgent sadnesses. There may have been a moment or two when one wished for a more overtly emotional approach -- is Elgar's "nobilmente" the equivalent of the Yiddish "schmaltzy"? -- but the interpretation paid rich dividends in terms of the symphony's structure.
It has always seemed to this listener, for instance, that the marked contrast between the first movement's luxuriant nostalgia and the second movement's scurrying march threatened the piece's organization. Last night, the conductor's approach, which emphasized the urgency of the first movement, made the work seem more coherent. And by lowering the thermostat in the first movement, Zinman was also able to make the slow third movement -- which was played with eloquence and refinement -- the symphony's emotional center of gravity. The orchestra -- except for some overblowing by the brass early in the first movement -- played well.