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Sir Edward ELGAR (1891 - 1934)
Violin Concerto in b, Op 61 (1910) (40.37)
Yehudi Menuhin, violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) Op 36 (1899) (27.16)
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra
Edward Elgar, conductor
Recorded No. 1 Studio Abbey Road, London, 15 July 1932 (concerto)
and Queens’ Hall, London, 30 Aug 1926 (Enigma)
Prism SNS Noise Shaping. ADD mono
Notes by Michael Kennedy in English, French, and German.
Photographs of the artists and of the dedicatees of the Variations
Great Recordings of the Century
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 66979 2 8 [77.13]


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This venerable recording has been released many times over in the past decades, but has never sounded so good as it does now. With hiss and crackle removed, clear highs and solid bass line it is now completely enjoyable; not merely a treasured document. As a performance it is a little more dramatic than I prefer, since I was brought up more on the Sammons version. No matter what everybody else in the world says I like the first but not the second Kennedy version, and also like Pinchas Zuckerman playing with Leonard Slatkin. But the conviction of this performance sweeps any such considerations aside; while you are listening these artists hold you completely bound. Before the recording Yehudi Menuhin was considered an American (which he was, of course) certainly an odd idea nowadays. But after this recording he belonged to Elgar and eventually to England. Menuhin’s unique style was already present and identifiable at the age of 16.

The Enigma is a remarkable performance, very individual, with tremendous conviction. Parts of it are very fast. Composers often play their own music too fast, simply because before anybody else hears it they have heard it dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, and have lost the sense of the balance of time or may even dislike it. But Elgar plays this music with every ounce of a father’s pride and a mother’s love and with excitement and passion. There may be different performances than this, but none any better. The sound may be not quite so clear as the Concerto recording from 6 years later, but it is nearly so and equally enjoyable.

There has been much discussion about Elgar’s place in history and his works’ place in the repertoire. Prompted by Vaughan Williams, I observe that Elgar is a member of the ‘Non-Germanic’ school, that his symphonic forms derive recognisably from Elizabethan music. Those who feel Elgar’s was a failed attempt to imitate Brahms misunderstand him and find all kinds of "errors" in the music, and cut themselves off from the beauty and joy to be found here. If Liszt had written a violin concerto, it might have had some similarities to this one. If you have trouble understanding the Liszt b minor piano sonata, try listening to it next to an Elgar Symphony. Did William Byrd write a keyboard fantasia musically depicting his friends in the various sections? Maybe he did and we don’t know it.

And, of course, the ‘Enigma’ remains undeciphered.

A minor annoyance: The portraits in the program booklet of the dedicatees of the variations in the ‘Enigma’ are printed on what should be the open centrefold, but EMI have bound four pages of catalogue listings from the GROTC series on top of it. To keep the portraits on the fold from being cut in half, one must open the staples and remove the catalogue pages then recrimp the staples, hopefully without bloodshed. Someone at EMI should have been able to work around this.

Paul Shoemaker

 

EMI Great Recordings of the Century



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