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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op. 36 (1899) [32:46]
In the South (Alassio), Op. 50 (1904) [22:52]
Serenade, Op. 20 (1892) [11:58]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, Fairfield Hall, Croydon, UK, 18 April 2007 (Enigma); Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 19 April 2007 (In the South) and 20 May 2007
Experience Classicsonline

There’s really not much to say about this one. Sir Andrew Davis in an all-Elgar programme ought to be a safe pair of hands, and so it turns out, and more besides.

The programme opens with the Enigma Variations, the phrasing of the theme as loving as one has ever heard it. The end of the first variation, C.A.E., depicting the composer’s wife, may be a little too drawn out for some tastes, but Elgar often expressed his affection for her in language at least as sweetly sentimental as this. The showy variations are splendid, but the more intimate ones are even more successful, and one comes away, perhaps more than in many performances, with the idea that some of Elgar’s friends were a melancholy lot. The cellist, Basil Nevinson, in a highly expressive reading, has rarely sounded as sad as he does here. The solo part is beautifully played, and this seems the moment to praise the outstanding orchestral playing throughout the disc, and the brilliantly characterful solo playing in particular. The Enigma Variations has been recorded many, many times, and each listener will have a favourite. I am very attached to Barbirolli in this work, though I sometimes wonder if this is not as much for sentimental reasons as for musical ones. The present performance is as fine as any I have heard, and I don’t think anyone who acquires it will be less than delighted. The recording is particularly detailed, bringing out a few points of orchestration I had never heard before, though you have to turn up the volume a fair bit to get enough punch in the louder passages, which means that the softer ones lose a little of their intimacy.

The performance of In the South is, if anything, even finer. The opening is surely the most exuberant music Elgar ever composed, and this comes over wonderfully well in this performance. Once again the orchestra is in inspired form, and this extends to the gentler, more atmospheric passages too. The work, always a winner in the concert hall, is nonetheless not one of the composer’s more coherent creations from a formal point of view, but Sir Andrew’s subtle control of tempo between the different sections disguises that very successfully. There are passages in the work where the composer runs the risk of overstepping the boundaries of taste, too, and it is a mark of the conductor’s skill that they are totally convincing. I’m thinking in particular of the passage based on hammered, repeated falling fifths (beginning at 7:12) where the listener is not sure whether Sir Andrew is moving the music on or not, only that the pulse never drags, successfully avoiding any suggestion of bombast. It’s a very fine performance and, like the Enigma, is greeted with enthusiastic applause.

This performance of the adorable Serenade will not appeal to those who want to indulge themselves, but is likely to please those who feel that Elgar knew what he wanted as regards tempo. Even so, the first and last movements here, amongst the briskest performances I know, still fall short of Elgar’s markings which do seem very fast indeed. The music is gracefully phrased, skipping rather than lilting, and is full of affection despite the conductor’s unwillingness to linger. The central slow movement, at a similarly flowing tempo, is very moving, wistful and passionate by turns, just as it should be.

The name “Philhamonia Orchestra” - albeit in trendy all lower case fashion - is given greater prominence on this disc than “Signum”, and the back cover of the booklet carries information about other Philharmonia performances on the same label. As a collaborative effort it can only be welcomed, especially at mid-price. There are very readable and informative notes by M. Ross. Newcomers to Elgar and seasoned listeners hoping for vital and individual readings of these particular works need not hesitate.

William Hedley


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