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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cockaigne (In London Town), Concert Overture, Op. 40 (1900) [15.54]
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma Variations), Op. 36 (1899) [30.33]
Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op. 20 (1890) [11.47]
Salut d’amour, Op. 12 (1888) [3.16]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
Rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, 5-6 June 1989. DDD
TELARC CD-80192 [61.55]

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The popularity of Elgar's Enigma Variations is reflected by the ever-increasing number of recordings. It is all the more important, therefore, that an individual recording is able to hold its own against the competitors, some of which are of an exceedingly high standard.

This particular version, recorded in 1989 by David Zinman conducing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is a good but unexceptional interpretation, giving a rather conventional and unexciting performance of works that demand great characterisation.

The disc commences with a leisurely Cockaigne Overture. Zinman's version is not as nostalgic and slushy as many others, yet one felt that it had gone too far in the opposite direction. It is smooth, sophisticated, polite, relaxed. Although there are some lovely touches – lots of gorgeous portamento for example, a tremendous sound from the organ at the end and a beautifully prominent tuba at the first entry of the brass band, yet Zinman stands too far back, and the performance needs to be more emotional. This is a very middle-of-the-road rendition, no risks are taken and the result is something safe and tame, neither rumbustious nor sentimentally indulgent. Cockaigne is a portrayal of London – the sights, sounds, smells of the old London town are meant to impact forcefully upon one with this vivid picture of Elgar’s, and this performance doesn’t paint the rough and realistic image of London that it should. For example, although the brass are generally bristling and pronounced throughout, at the entry of the brass band, one should be able to see the spartan, cocky brass band parading, roistering, down the street – this section is not meant to be pretty and formal and elegant as Zinman makes it (the entries in particular are far too prescribed, starched and punctilious). The music should reach out and grab you, it should be tense, moving, intense, and here it is simply not brash enough. The performance does not have the swagger (again, especially in the brass) that Cockaigne demands and sounds far too polished. Taken at a rather pedestrian pace, the entire work comes across as rather dirge-like, subdued and reserved.

The Enigma is not a huge improvement. One could argue that we already have far too many versions of this masterpiece, and that this particular one is superfluous as it has nothing more to offer, and does not stand out from the rest. As with Cockaigne, it is extremely well-played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with particularly nimble string-playing in Troyte. Again, slightly on the slow side, this version has its charm, yet one very much feels that it is a conservative, safe performance of the work, almost slightly lame and pedestrian. The beginning of Nimrod is marked triple pianissimo, and this means that one should be straining to hear it. Few conductors manage to achieve this, and Zinman is one of those who doesn’t. The dynamics in the BGN variation are fairly poor, too, and in general, Zinman does not bring out the contrasts in the variations particularly well. So this is a fairly routine version of Enigma, and one that does not justify buying if one already has another recording. I would, for example, highly recommend the 1970 Boult recording with the LSO (now re-released on EMI), which combines clarity with vivacity. Boult has a way of performing Nimrod sensitively yet without over-doing it, conveying the variation’s sentiment effectively without being over-sentimental. His dog bark in GRS is surely the classic version, and his percussion section responds with vigour and energy, particularly in EDU.

Zinman’s disc concludes with the Serenade for Strings and Salut d’amour. The playing here is again of an extremely high standard although one might wish for a little more animation and vitality in the works (particularly in the first two movements of the Serenade, which come across as lethargic and rather sluggish). There is some nice portamento in the Salut d’amour, but like the Serenade, it is just too soft, gentle and elegiac, and it seems to lack spirit.

No-one would actually be severely disappointed by this disc but with the plethora of recordings, there is no particular reason why one should choose this over a version by Boult, Handley, or even Elgar himself (The EMI Elgar Edition recordings). Zinman’s disc is competent, but slightly uninspired, with a tendency to linger too much, and not enough life and sparkle. This is a great shame, because Zinman is a devoted Elgarian, and has conducted a fair amount of Sir Edward’s works. One felt that even the programmes notes lacked authority and just did not come across as very convincing. A good disc, but by no means outstanding.

Em Marshall


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