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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations (1898)
A documentary: A Hidden Portrait
and a complete performance of the work
by BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Documentary filmed in the Malvern Hills
Concert recorded in Worcester Cathedral 30th June 2004
BBC OPUS ARTE DVD OA 0917 D [85:00]

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As an introduction to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, this documentary may well satisfy the newcomer - most probably the young newcomer - to  the work, and even to the music of Elgar, but to the committed Elgar-lover it leaves a lot to be desired.

The documentary, which includes scenes borrowed from Ken Russell’s classic BBC Monitor film Elgar, plus footage of Elgar at his Marl Bank home and at the Three Choirs Festivals (all available on a marvellous bfi [British Film Institute] DVD BIFVD524) seems to be unashamedly aimed at a populist market with early scenes shot at the last night of the Proms with banners and flags waving aloft to strains of Land of Hope and Glory . Andrew Davis waxes eloquently enough in his narration, quite rightly proclaiming that the music of Elgar “… somehow sums up our national psyche …” and offering a mostly entertaining and informative analysis of the Variations. But the weakness of his script shows through such gaffes as claiming that the work was written in Worcester when the Elgars were living in Malvern at the time, and it is superficial to claim that the ‘Romanza’ Variation XIII (***) is full of warmth. The outer sections maybe but the inner music speaks of deep, deep despair as it suggests someone very dear to the composer (his fiancé, Helen Weaver) sailing out of his life for ever.  [This tragedy was to affect the composer’s music throughout his life. For more information on this matter, I recommend the thought-provoking essay Edward Elgar: Music and Literature’ by Brian Trowell in Edward Elgar Music and Literature Edited by Raymond Monk, Scolar Press].     

But the most distasteful and crass elements of this documentary are the visuals; the golf imagery in connection with RBT Variation III is laboured, the imagery of a man waking up late and having to rush for a train is quite inane and out of keeping with the essential character of ‘Troyte’ and as for the modern ‘with-it’ imagery of a quartet of coloured people on roller skates illustrating the grace of the ‘Dorabella’ Variation, this is surely taking political correctness too far?  Worse still is the inept imagery for the Helen Weaver tragedy behind the ‘Romanza’ Variation, reducing her flight from Elgar to New Zealand to the ridiculous depiction of a pretty girl in modern evening dress disappearing up the Thames on what looks like a tiny tug boat as a young man looks despairingly down at her from one of London’s bridges.  Who on earth thinks up such inanities? 

Better to ignore the documentary and enjoy Davis’s sensitive and robust reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations performed in Worcester Cathedral. The ‘Nimrod’ Variation, for instance, is noble if a touch slow and deliberate, the ‘Dorabella’ Variation dances delightfully and the final E.D.U. Variation (Elgar himself) is full of confidence and swagger.  The booklet that comes with the DVD has helpful notes on the personalities of each variation and there are pictures of them all except Helen Weaver and Lady Mary Lygon who have both been associated with that ‘Romanza’ (***) Variation.  

Enjoy Davis’s Worcester Cathedral performance of the Enigma Variations.  Approach the dumbed-down, politically-correct documentary with caution – distasteful and crass imagery abounds.

Ian Lace




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