Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Edward ELGAR
Cockaigne Overture
Serenade for Strings
Enigma Variations

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec Nov and Dec 1954, Walthamstow Town Hall
SONY CLASSICAL SMK89405 [58.28] Midprice
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One must give a warm welcome to these recordings on their return to the catalogue, their first appearance on CD. Originally released in 1955 on a single Philips LP (ABL3053), for some reason they were then spread across two LPs (GBL5645 and 5646). In 1975 they re-emerged on a single CBS LP (CBS61660) and five years later they were elevated to the CBS Classics series (61878). Since then, for too long, they have been absent.

Beecham and Elgar? Some may be surprised. Delius - yes, of course, and Sibelius and Berlioz, and a host of others. But Elgar? The story has gone round that Beecham was totally antipathetic to and even disliked the music of Elgar, stemming, of course, from that (in)famous occasion in October 1909 when he toured England, Wales and Ireland with his Beecham Symphony Orchestra, playing the First Symphony almost nightly in, we are told, a heavily cut version. A strongly-worded letter of complaint written by Havergal Brian to the Music Times drew attention to this 'insult to the composer'. In those days the make-up of provincial concerts often consisted of many shorter numbers, often with vocalists, and a 50-minute symphony might well have been daunting for many a listener - one possible reason why Beecham cut the work. While cuts are rightly frowned on today, they were more common then. Elgar even sanctioned a cut in the last movement of his Violin Concerto (there were savage cuts, of course, in his early acoustic recordings of that concerto and Cockaigne, to name but two works), and having a work performed at all was possibly of greater consideration than its completeness. It was also a little while before Holst's The Planets were programmed complete. But if Beecham disliked Elgar's music, why did he perform the symphony some twenty times or so on that tour? Much later he included it in a Queen's Hall concert in December 1931 which Elgar attended and in a special Coronation concert in April 1937. Vera Hockman, who attended the earlier performance with Elgar, described it as 'somewhat erratic . . . but undoubtedly good in parts; living and fiery and unimaginably beautiful in the slow movement'.) Clearly Beecham was not in sympathy with Elgar's music anything like to the extent that he was with Delius's and others, but he did not avoid it. He was selective: one performance of the Second Symphony (Birmingham, 1911), one Gerontius (Montreal, 1941), a few of the concerti (mostly the Cello) and Falstaff (including a memorable one in an all-British programme at Bournemouth in 1948), several other works on infrequent occasions, and a good number of performances of the works on this CD which are the only commercial recordings of Elgar he made. He would sometimes tour abroad with the Variations, and although always a supporter of British music, it should perhaps be pointed out that he was actually even more selective when it came to the music of Vaughan Williams, Bax and Holst, for example.

For a BBC broadcast of the Enigma Variations in December 1958, Beecham provided a typically light-hearted, almost flippant, introduction: 'It is a famous piece, the most famous piece of its composer who is a famous man. It's played all over the world, and is likely to be played all over the world for a long time to come. Well, it's none the worse for being what some people call hackneyed. Personally, I love hackneyed works: it gives myself the opportunity of showing the public how they ought to be played', and there was an audible chuckle. In this recording, even more so than in the BBC broadcast (which is over three minutes shorter), Beecham certainly shows how the work can be played. Tempi may occasionally seem broader than sometimes taken, yet he paces the theme itself just a fraction faster than the composer on record. Otherwise he is scrupulously faithful to every direction, every nuance in the score. In particular he is closely observant of the dynamics. It is well worth following his reading with the score to confirm this, and in this excellent transfer every gradation, every hairpin tells. 'C.A.E' is beautifully handled - p, pp, even ppp until the tremendous fortissimo surge at the largamente three bars before figure 4. The exceptional clarity of this mono recording brings out the staccato woodwind laugh in 'R.P.A.', the thunderous timpani in 'Troyte', the oboe trills in 'W.N.', the brass hairpins at the climaxes of 'Nimrod'. Variation X is sheer delight - dainty, graceful, on tiptoes, young Dorabella's stutter cruelly pointed by the delicate stress on the first note of the woodwind quadruplets. In 'B.G.N.' the cello theme is played exactly as marked, the decrescendo hairpins observed and the higher notes of the tune carefully accentuated. 'Romanza (***)' is another miracle. The Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage quotation is floated as clear as a starry night, first pp then ppp above the continuous drumming of the ship's engine. Just one or two moments elsewhere may seem a shade perfunctory: the beginning of Variation V, and the Finale does not broaden at its close as some may wish (although there is no indication in the score for it to do so). Yet otherwise this is a very satisfactory Enigma. The other two works receive equally fine readings, especially Cockaigne which is well paced and by turns contemplative and lively without being merely noisy. This is followed by a relaxed, unhurried Serenade for Strings.

These three works were recorded at Walthamstow Town Hall on 26th and 27th November 1954, moving to an unspecified location on 13th and 14th December for the concluding sections of Enigma and Cockaigne which require organ. The change of venue is the cause of one weakness in an otherwise superb Cockaigne. It is fairly evident that the section recorded in this new hall begins at cue 39 (Tempo, Nobilmente). But the organ entry should be on a low pedal note in the preceding bar and in this recording it is noticeable by its absence, only for the ear to be assaulted in the next bar by the sudden change in acoustic and dynamic at the join. For all the trouble in changing the venue, the organ is not very prominent, and the join does to some extent spoil the performance. Listening to Barbirolli's account of Cockaigne recorded earlier that same year (CDM 5 66399-2), one is in no doubt as to the organ's presence, right from its pedal entry. One other detail: the original tape of the Serenade for Strings appears slightly insecure in places in the Larghetto where the sound pulsates, but not enough to cause real concern.

With so many fine recordings of the Enigma Variations available this may not be a first recommendation, but it is certainly one of considerable interest, especially from this conductor. Now, if only we had a Falstaff from Beecham . . .

Stephen Lloyd

And Rob Barnett adds

Beecham and Elgar are names I do not readily associate with each other. That said one of Beecham's protégés, the late Norman Del Mar, committed to disc one of the strongest and stormiest Enigmas ever (DG Polydor LP coupling Enigma with the Five Pomp and Circumstance Marches and still to make it to CD).

Beecham's way with Elgar is pretty unceremonious - some might say irreverent - but it is a welcome change from all that the bowed head sanctimony. His Cockaigne is brusque, invigorating, even pointing up the pre-echoes with that latter day Cockaigne (every bit as popular as the Elgar): Arthur Butterworth's Mancunians. Brusque Beecham may be but he is not heartless. The lovingly caressed second subject of Cockaigne makes this clear. He makes all possible hay with the military rumpus of the middle section where Beecham pushes the brass contingent to the limit. If you think you do not like Elgar try this for a change.

Graham Melville-Mason tackles the various aspects of the Beecham-Delius mythology in a long and penetrating note.

Sound quality is somewhat flattened dynamically speaking in the overture. For example the brass band expostulation at the close of Cockaigne is punch-pulled unlike the passionate outburst in CAE (Enigma) which is raw in its declamatory tone. Enigma is liltingly done with fruity by-play aplenty from the RPO's celebrity woodwind principals. Troyte is explosively thunderous and flashes with tetchy lightning. All in all one of the most fiery and temperamental Enigmas I have heard. I yearn to hear Beecham in the Second Symphony. Even Beecham however can do little with the thin and mannered Serenade. Would that he could have been let loose instead on the Introduction and Allegro or for that matter In The South. My guess is that Beecham's Alassio would have given Silvestri's classic EMI version a run for its money.

Beecham's new wine in Elgar's old bottles. A potent brew. More please Sony.

Rob Barnett

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