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Edward ELGAR (1857 Ė 1934)
Enigma Variations, Op. 36
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis.
Recorded live in Worcester Cathedral, 30 June 2004.
DVD. (DTS Stereo, LPCM Stereo).
BBC OPUS ARTE OA 0917 D [85í00"]

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This DVD will give enormous pleasure and it is an example of what the BBC can do when they are not trying to dumb down or be clever. The programme is divided into two parts, the first being a complete performance of the Enigma Variations given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their past Music Director Sir Andrew Davis. How refreshing it is to see this orchestra trying to, and indeed succeeding in playing with commitment and fervour. This contrasts with their past performances under Leonard Slatkin, happily having now left these shores after his disastrous tenure as Music Director.

We are often told in sleeve-notes about how Elgarís compositions are suited to the English Cathedral environment. Well, here you are: Elgarís most famous composition, set in perhaps one of the most English of all cathedrals, Worcester. It is a highly appropriate locale, given that Worcester was Elgarís home, and many of his works were actually premiered there.

Davis leads his orchestra through Elgarís masterpiece with a surefootedness which comes from a long experience of the composer in general, and of this work in particular. The orchestraís concentration on what they are doing comes over in the performance, and although it was probably recorded in bits and pieces there is a sweep about the whole performance which is mightily impressive. Maybe they were overawed by the location, but whether they were or not, this is of no matter, since the end-product is so outstanding.

The sound quality is superb with the microphone placing being chosen so as to allow us to hear the cavernous acoustic of the cathedral without it becoming too woolly so as to lose definition. The presence of the cathedral organ in the finale is gut-wrenching in the extreme.

The second half of the programme is a documentary, covering a good portion of some of the characters around which Elgar built his Variations. This is informative without becoming sentimental, and the producers and director are to be congratulated for a programme which so easily could have descended into sentimental mush. The portrait of the inhabitants of the Enigma Variations is a little longer than the work itself, running as it does to some 49 minutes, compared to 37 minutes for the Variations. It is good to have this part of the documentary hosted by the conductor and orchestra rather than some plastic "celeb", which appears to be the BBC ethic at present. In addition, there are no computer graphics so that viewers like myself who abhor the current fad of our masters in the BBC will obtain unalloyed pleasure from this DVD. I detest the thinking that says that we cannot absorb information without flashing lights, strange visual effects or indeed without a constant rock-beat in the background.

Sound quality is excellent. This release deserves to do exceptionally well in the market-place, provided that enough information is given about the release to allow music-lovers like myself to make up our own minds.

The DVD comes with multi-lingual sub-titles and with short, but nonetheless detailed summaries of what is being presented in English, German and French. It was a very nice touch also to include period photographs of the various friends of Elgar, pictured within the Variations, together with some magnificent photographs of the venue during the filming. Recommended without reservation.

I am sure that this release will be one of my DVDs of the Year.

John Phillips

see also review by Ian Lace


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