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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
CD 1:
In the South (Alassio), Op. 50: Overture [20.00]
Symphony No. 1, Op. 55: Andante. Nobilmente e semplice; Allegro [20.28]; Allegro molto [6.31]; Adagio [13.40]; Lento; Allegro [12.31]
CD 2:
Symphony No. 2, Op. 63: Allegro vivace e nobilmente [17.15]; Larghetto [15.11]; Rondo: Presto [7.40]; Moderato e maestoso [14.43]
Serenade for strings, Op. 20: Allegro piacevole [3.19]; Larghetto [6.28]; Allegretto [2.41]
Salut d’amour, Op.12 [3.02]
CD 3:
Froissart, Op. 19 [13.45]
Cockaigne (In London Town), Op. 40 [15.29]
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma": Theme (Enigma) [1.55]; Variation I (C.A.E.) [2.16]; Variation II (H.D.S-P.) [0.47]; Variation III (R.B.T.) [1.24]; Variation IV (W.M.B.) [0.31]; Variation V (R.P.A.) [2.24]; Variation VI (Ysobel) [1.21]; Variation VII (Troyte) [0.56]; Variation VIII (W.N.) [1.56]; Variation IX (Nimrod) [5.00]; Variation X (Dorabella) [2.31]; Variation XI (G.R.S.) [0.59]; Variation XII (B.G.N.) [3.02]; Variation XIII (***) [3.10]; Variation XIV (E.D.U.) [5.48]
CD 4:
Violin Concerto, Op.61: Allegro [17.28]; Andante [11.46]; Allegro molto [19.23]
Cello Concerto, Op. 85: Adagio; Moderato [7.25]; Lento; Allegro molto [4.29]; Adagio [4.35]; Allegro, ma non troppo; Poco piu lento; Allegro molto [11.11]
Janos Starker (cello), Pinchas Zukerman (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (CDs 1-3)
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (CD 4)
Recorded 1989, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2004 BMG Music DDD
BMG-RCA Red Seal Complete Collections 4 CDs 82876 603892 2 [73:36 + 71:08 + 63:50 + 76:40]

 

This compilation gets off to an excellent start. The first disc opens with a virtuoso performance of In the South. This is a muscular, taut, no-nonsense, crisp performance with tremendous panache in the LPO brass. Slatkin resists the tendency to dwell too lovingly on some of the quieter sections, as other conductors are prone to do, although at one point the performance does almost grind to a halt! Personally, I much prefer performances where the music is pushed along rather than being subjected to an almost microscopic examination. The coda here is particularly successful and is driven along to a compelling and satisfying conclusion. This is highly recommended. The remainder of the disc is devoted to the First Symphony. I have always admired Slatkin’s versions of the first and second symphonies (not the third!) and those who have heard and been impressed with his live performances will not be disappointed. Slatkin takes an even-handed approach, perfectly paced, unlike Colin Davis in his LSO Live recording, who takes the opening of the symphony too slowly. Slatkin gives an energetic, vibrant and dynamic rendition, and although one could possibly criticise the third movement for being slightly too exaggerated and overblown (more Mahlerian than Elgarian, and the music really doesn’t demand that kind of treatment here), as a whole, this is a powerful and moving performance. When we remember that Elgar himself took about 47 minutes for this work and yet other conductors such as Sinopoli and Tate take well over 60, we can understand that there is a certain amount of leeway to the amount of time the symphony can take. The score indicates about 51 minutes and Slatkin takes just over 52.

The second disc contains the Second Symphony followed by the Serenade for Strings and Salut d’amour. Although there are a dozen other versions of the Second Symphony that are similarly characterised and receive equally sympathetic performances, this is still an impressive rendition. To my mind, the climax of the second movement is not quite overwhelming enough and is eclipsed by Colin Davis’s live performance with the LSO (LSO Live). The rest of the symphony, however, is sensitive, masterly, suitably intense and most proficiently played. So, overall the performances of both symphonies are excellent, and certainly will not disappoint Elgar lovers. The Serenade is elegantly played but the second movement is a little on the slow side. Slatkin's version of Salut d’amour is utterly charming and a most welcome conclusion to the disc.

The third disc contains the two earlier overtures, Froissart and Cockaigne, as well as the Enigma Variations. Froissart was written in 1890 and was Elgar’s only substantial work for full orchestra until 1899, the year of the Enigma Variations and Elgar’s subsequent catapulting to national and international recognition. This nine-year gap includes some excellent choral and orchestral works, written for the major music festivals such as Leeds and Birmingham. Many theories have been put forward as to why Elgar did not tackle any other purely orchestral work in this period. However, the fact remains that Froissart, despite its early gestation (although the composer was 33 when it was written), does contain some very characteristic Elgarian touches. Some of these are brilliantly encapsulated in this performance but unfortunately, taken as a whole, it is not a particularly inspired interpretation. Slatkin rarely seems to get the tempo consistently right and the result is a hotchpotch of different sections which never seem to come together as one overall conception. Cockaigne is far more successful and is an excellently characterised performance. I have serious reservations with Slatkin’s reading of the ensuing Enigma Variations. It gets off to a bad start, being much too slow and lugubrious for my liking. Variation II (H.D.S-P) is far too measured and restrained. The performance doesn’t truly come alive until Variation VII (Troyte) with the timpani and brass beautifully captured. Although the pianopianissimo at the beginning of Nimrod is conscientiously observed, Elgar’s tempo markings are not. With crotchet equalling 52, we should get to the end of bar 17 at one minute. Slatkin gets there in two minutes exactly and the whole movement takes 5’ instead of 2’ 52" in Elgar’s own performance. Can this be the slowest Nimrod since Bernstein? The entire performance comes across as far too reserved and non-committed, and falls far below, for example, the exquisite 1970 Boult recording, or Handley on EMI, which I would recommend instead.

On the final disc we have a coupling of the two string concertos with accompaniment from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), rather than the London Philharmonic as on the other three discs. Pinchas Zukerman first recorded the Elgar concerto in 1976 under Barenboim and this later RCA recording was made in 1993. It is very uncommon for a recording of an Elgar concerto to have no participants from the United Kingdom – one tends to find a foreign conductor and soloist but with an English orchestra. However, in this case the SLSO under their then principal conductor make a compelling contribution to this disc. Zukerman, on the other hand, produces a rather distant performance with little insight into the ‘soul’ and character of the music. His detachment is easily illustrated if one follows the score and takes note of Elgar’s meticulous dynamic markings. Zukerman makes very little distinction between ppp and f in some passages. This is well illustrated in the first movement where there is the sudden diminuendo from f to ppp two bars before 19. This diminuendo is barely observed and unless these subtle nuances are scrupulously followed, the music can easily lose its passion and intensity, ending up sounding simply ‘matter of fact’. It should be remembered that this score is prefaced by a quotation in Spanish "aqui esta encerrada el alma de ….". This quotation is usually translated as "here is enshrined the soul of…" However, an equally good translation might be "here is imprisoned the soul of …" A point few commentators take note of, I think the latter gives a completely different slant to Elgar’s intentions and seems to be the translation favoured by Zukerman! The same observations apply to the second and final movements during which, although well played, the performance as a whole never takes flight as it should. There are many other better performances than this on disc. I would personally recommend the – as far as I’m concerned – unrivalled Sammons recording on Pearl above all others (and similarly with the Delius violin concerto, of which Sammons’ version is simply unsurpassable) but realise that historical recordings are not to everyone’s taste. Otherwise, Kennedy under either Rattle or Handley, or Menhuin under Boult can be trusted to give outstanding renditions, as would be expected.

Janos Starker is not a well-known exponent of the Elgar cello concerto but he gives us a measured, straightforward, unsentimental approach to the work. It is technically secure but at times the sound seems rather lean. He goes for rather conservative tempi in the second movement and achieves a stark nobility in the fourth movement. The SLSO under Slatkin give an alert, sympathetic and unobtrusive accompaniment.

So, all in all, this is a bit of a mixed bag and it is difficult to give the set a wholehearted recommendation. Whilst the performances of the two concertos are not top-rate, they will certainly not disappoint. However, one would be hard-pressed to be able to tolerate repeated hearings of the, at times dirge-like, Enigma Variations. It may be, although, that the potential purchaser has already obtained a satisfactory version of the Variations and is now looking to explore Elgar's orchestral music further. Since this collection contains top ranking versions of the two symphonies and is excellent value for money, it can be recommended. However, the competition is very strong in this sector and there are alternative, and equally good collections available such as those by Previn, Handley, Andrew Davies and Elgar himself (the EMI Elgar Editions) which I would also highly commend.

Em Marshall



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