This recording, released in 2005, continues a tradition of very fine performances of this symphony by British artists. If there is any truth in the saying that performances of any music by artists from the same country have a special innate understanding of the idiom, then this disc offers some further evidence. This is not to say that Elgar is not a universal composer, of course, as witnessed by wonderful recordings by international conductors. These include Monteux, Jochum, Mackerras, Barenboim, Solti, Handley and Haitink, just to mention a few. In most cases though, they have been supported by British orchestras which may have been a help!
There have been very many fine versions of this second symphony over the years. Both Barbirolli and Boult were pioneers, Barbirolli taking a more emotional line than Boult who underlined structural strength. Solti provided very fast and driven recordings based on the speeds taken by the composer in his own very early recordings. Handley followed in the Boult tradition with a fine series of Elgar recordings including this symphony. Two of the newest are the ones from Mackerras and this one by Hickox and both of these demand the greatest respect.
Both Mackerras and Hickox have the great advantage of particularly fine modern recordings* which are able to fully project the full range of Elgar's scoring. The recordings easily rise to the challenges of the dynamic range* and both conductors tread a middle course so far as interpretation is concerned. Both have more drive and excitement than Boult for example but are not as frenetic as Solti. Both offer far better recordings technically* than the otherwise fine Handley. The couplings may therefore be the final decider. Mackerras offers a fine performance of the wonderful Sea Pictures. Hickox offers a very fine and deeply felt version of In the South. The central section featuring a viola solo is particularly well done at an unusually steady, bet justified, tempo.
As a very basic summary of comparison, I would suggest that Hickox is emotionally nearer Boult or Handley than Barbirolli for example. He delivers the imperial splendour of Boult's vision (his last recording) but without Boult's touch of imperiousness. In other words, a warmer sense of splendour whereas Boult is just that bit more distant or reserved emotionally.
*The Welsh orchestra are on fine form with Hickox and Chandos provide one of their very natural and wide ranging recordings although this only becomes apparent with a substantial increase in the volume setting. Not enough addition and the whole venture seems appallingly dull. Mackerras has the LSO and the fine technology of a Decca recording at normal volume setting.
In summary therefore, I would suggest that Mackerras, Hickox and Boult are worth very serious consideration as 'only' or as multiple collection versions. At a lower price range I would suggest that Handley also has much to offer.
Any of these four would qualify as giving considerable satisfaction but at present I would be inclined to choose between Mackerras and Hickox while still liking Boult's last version enormously too. Both newcomers have equal claims on collectors who should be happy with either, or both - but don't forget Boult either!