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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations, Op. 36 [37:06]
A Hidden Portrait [48:52]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Documentary hosted by the conductor.
Documentary filmed in Malvern Hills. Performance filmed in Worcester Cathedral. Original recording dates not given. This disc copyright 2004.
BBC OPUS ARTE OA 0917 D [85:58]


Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have taken a beloved masterpiece and turned it into a most enjoyable visual spectacle in this fascinating and informative documentary and performance.

In the documentary, Sir Andrew travels to Elgarís home and unravels the mystery of the numerous dedicatees, known only by their initials or some code name, that are portrayed in the work that was to propel the composer to international fame, and cement his place in world musical life.

I shanít give away all the fun, secrets and twists and turns here, but it will suffice to say that Maestro Davis has done his homework, and has, with the help of fine writers, assembled a film that is worth repeated viewing. He carefully outlines all of the wonderful and interesting characters from Elgarís life, and shows how those personalities are artfully portrayed within the music.

As for the performance itself, there are few save some of the great classic readings such as Boultís and Barbirolliís that can compete with Davisís expressive but controlled reading. The BBC Symphony seems doubly inspired by the exquisite surroundings of the Worcester Cathedral. The filmmakers have added a splendid extra touch of projecting the portraits of the various persons portrayed in the music onto the walls and columns of the church as their music is performed. This touch makes for a lovely nostalgic feeling and a certain ability to relate to the music even more. One must make sure and watch the documentary first though to completely understand and appreciate the pictorial references.

Presented in both stereo or surround sound, this disc is a sonic wonder, and the ambience of the cathedral is captured quite well. One might fear that there would be too much decay in such a big and rolling space, but the BBC engineers keep the echo under wraps and there is no loss of detail whatever. Andrew Davis was obviously meticulous in his preparation, as there are no blurred passages whatever and the balance between the sections is near perfect.

Of particular note is Davisís interpretation of the famous and often maudlin Nimrod. In the documentary, Davis points out that this work, although it has now become associated with times of great mourning, was never meant to be funereal, and that Elgar intended it to be a celebration of his publisher. The slow movement in Beethovenís Pathetique sonata inspired the theme. Davis keeps the solemnity of the music intact, but does not over-indulge in the voluptuousness of it all. Davis and his orchestra bring the whole piece to a joyous, rip-roaring conclusion.

This is certainly an item to add to your collection, both for the visuals and the splendid performance. Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton

see also reviews by Ian Lace and John Phillips (May Recording of the Month)

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