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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra Op. 47 (1904-5) [15:24]
Enigma Variations Op. 36 (1896-99) [32:08]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Our Hunting Fathers op. 8 (1936) [27:28]
Heather Harper (soprano)
Quartet: David Nolan (violin); Dermot Crehan (violin); Rusen Gunes (viola); Mark Jackson (cello).
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 27 Nov 1984 (Intro and Allegro), Royal Albert Hall, London, 14 Aug 1979 (Britten); 28 Aug 1986 (Enigma)
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LPO-0002 [75:18]

 

Bernard Haitink provides the unifying 'glue' for this anthology. He has already made fine versions of the two Elgar symphonies for EMI so this functions as an adroit complement. His Introduction and Allegro is very impressive; it sings in the not always kindly acoustic of the RFH. The massed power and unanimity of the string orchestra registers strongly. Haitink is however prone to slower speeds and can be extremely deliberate: listen to the magical hesitations at 7:43. But do you know what? ... it works and then some. This is a version that deserves a place in the collection of all Elgarians. There are more splendidly transparent recordings but in performance terms this will take a great deal of beating. This is an Ariel Square Four or a Rolls Royce Corniche of a performance: massive weighty impact and thunderous tonal riches. It is impressive seeing such power in flight. Enigma replicates all the virtues of the string work. The more playful variations have the requisite fey and feathery feel (tr. 17 Dorabella and HDS-P at tr. 9). In Troyte, GRS and EDU the brass are captured with staggering immediacy so that we are spared nothing of the masculine swag and brag of the playing. EDU has plenty of rollicking weighty magnificence.

The Britten is also a collector's item. The value of this recording is greatly enhanced by the singing of Heather Harper. Let's face it, Harper’s was one of the great voices of the century. If you doubt me then listen to Rats Away or to Hamilton Harty's Ode to a Nightingale. Her voice was, at this stage, still in superb fettle though slightly less pristine than when she sang the same work in 1976 for Charles Groves. It is an extraordinary song-cycle. If you want to know how extraordinary then listen to the second song, Rats Away. It requires vocal gymnastics of the most extreme and unforgiving magnitude. The orchestra ‘explodes’ in all directions, harrooing, erupting, shouting. Britten's handling of voice and orchestra is remarkable. I rate this as one of Britten's truly great works above the usual suspects: Serenade and Illuminations and Haitink captures the wild hunt without compromise. This is a whooping affirmative headlong pursuit of the quarry. Listen, in Messalina, to the ululating strings and to the slip-sliding harmonies of Dance of Death where the raucous rush of the music makes unknowing linkage with Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. At other times Orff's Carmina Burana seems to be in the sights and even jazz at 6:20. Harper is called on, time and again, to perform miracles of virtuosity and these she delivers every time.

As Eduardo Bennaroch reminds us in his note this was Britten's first orchestral work

The words are by W.H. Auden.

Life enhancing music-making from the LPO and Haitink. Essential supplementary listening for devotees of Elgar and Britten. Harper and Haitink add nitro-glycerine to Britten's early masterpiece. In years to come, when the bones of later works bleach in the sun, Our Hunting Fathers will stand clear and magnificent. It is treasure trove indeed that Heather Harper's assumption of the solo role has survived in such magnificent form.

The words are printed in full in the English-only booklet.

These recordings also capture audience applause.

Rob Barnett



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