> ELGAR Enigma etc Gardiner 4632652 [TH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
In the South (Alassio), Concert Overture Op.50 (1903) [20.38)
Introduction and Allegro for strings Op.47 (1905) [13.01]
Sospiri, for strings, harp and organ Op.70 (1914) [5.35]
Variations on an Original Theme,Op.36,’Enigma’ (1899) [30.34]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
John Eliot Gardiner
Recorded in the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, October, 1998, DDD
DG 463 265-2 [69.48]


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This high-profile DG release has had a fairly muted critical response so far. I certainly looked forward to the disc with keen anticipation; one of the world’s top orchestras in (for them) new repertoire, guided by a ‘revisionist’ conductor with a track record in dusting down the familiar and making us sit up and listen afresh. The results, alas, are a mixed bag.

The disc gets off to a rousing enough start, the VPO’s famed string section tearing into In the South with great gusto and panache. But one has the feeling, as in Solti’s Decca recording with the London Philharmonic, that Gardiner is aware of Elgar’s own famous version on EMI. By this stage in his career, Elgar was beginning to play down the work’s obvious Straussian echoes (he had referred to Strauss in 1905 as ‘the greatest genius of our days’) and Gardiner similarly seems to want to play things ‘straight’. So when the great ‘nobilmente’ descending theme emerges, there is little of the passion and sweep that the music needs. Anyone knowing the version I was brought up on, Silvestri and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, will know what I mean. A good modern counterpart to that version is Gibson’s Chandos account, a demonstration quality recording, with the (then) Scottish National Orchestra on cracking form. I can safely say the SNO are not outplayed by the Viennese, and the gorgeous ‘canto popolare’ section is easily as seductive as this new version. To be sure, there are incidental beauties along the way (I like Gardiner’s shaping of the ‘Roman’ episode), but too much of the thrill this wonderful score seems underplayed.

The final coda is a good example; Gardiner, even more so than Solti, is determined not to ‘milk’ those great brass triplets at the end and risk any cheap ‘playing to the gallery’; however, in Gibson’s hands, the slightest broadening out of this passage gives an overwhelming impact and jubilant finality to the piece.

The Introduction and Allegro gets a reading of great polish and refinement, and it is only when one turns to famous rivals (such as Barbirolli) that one realises a dimension is missing; maybe sheer passion is the vital element, but more than once I felt a lack of engagement with the music. The central fugue is masterfully played, and I have never heard the final pizzicato so together. Still, I’m willing to trade a bit of refinement for some emotional thrust.

Sospiri is almost entirely successful, the weight and sonority of the Vienna strings giving the piece an almost Brucknerian intensity. Good as the Hickox version is (one of the fill-ups to his Chandos recording of The Kingdom), this definitely has the edge.

Any lover of Elgar is bound to have more than one Enigma in their collection, and it’s doubtful if Gardiner’s will supplant their current favourite, be it Boult, Barbirolli, Rattle, Solti or, in my case, Monteux’s 1961 account with the LSO, now on Decca’s ‘Classic Sound’ series. Again, it’s difficult to pin down, as everything is all in the right place and beautifully executed. But one of the reasons I love the Monteux so much is his refusal to see Nimrod as the climax, rightly building a cumulative tension that is only resolved with E.D.U, the portrait of the composer himself, and surely the work’s true climactic point. Gardiner tends (at least to my ears) to view the piece too episodically, superbly played as it all is. It may just be a case of over-familiarity with one’s favourites, but I did not feel this new recording gave me any new insights.

The recorded sound is good, though not as spectacular as the Gibson, or for that matter any better balanced than the old Monteux. Anyone coming new to this music, and fancying this particular combination, is unlikely to disappointed. But Elgarians are probably not going to find old allegiances altered, and it’s worth remembering that most of the discs referred to above (and many more besides) are either mid or budget.-priced.

Tony Haywood

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