Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) (1899) [30:10]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [15:02]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
rec. 1959, St Augustine’s Church, St John’s Wood, London
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD208 [45:25]
Of the three most devoted, knighted Elgarians who were active during the composer’s life and survived into the 1960s and beyond, it’s Boult and Barbirolli who have tended to wear the laurels. Despite his Gerontius recordings, Sargent has tended to be overlooked. One reason is that he made no studio recordings of the symphonies. It was only a matter of time before off-air symphony performances became commercially available; the recent Second Symphony performance from Bristol in January 1964 is a case in point and demonstrates, despite a few rough edges, the importance and essential centrality of his performance [BBC MM280].
The Enigma variations was another matter in terms of his standing in the studio marketplace. Decca offered him a recording in 1945 with the National Symphony Orchestra [Dutton CDK1203] and then there came this EMI traversal with the Philharmonia in 1959. Readers may know that other performances have been issued - the BBC issued a live 1966 performance with the BBC SO on BBCRD9104 and there must be many more still securely stored in the vaults.
He was fairly consistent over the years, though detail varied and perhaps inevitably he grew more expansive as the years passed, as did Barbirolli, but not necessarily Boult. For example Sargent’s more measured in this Philharmonia recording in the first two movements than he had been in 1945. The strings are on top notch form in Troyte, lashing into their phrases with sure intent, and they phrase tenderly throughout. The fabled winds are equally charged. If Sargent now slows slightly for Nimrod - though he was not one to hang around and Vernon Handley would doubtless have preferred his way with it to, say, Pierre Monteux’s - it’s only a relative matter given the briskness of his 1945 approach. He was yet slower still in 1966. I think he was right to expand B.G.N. which has always seemed to me to be one of the most moving of the variations, sometimes more moving than Nimrod in fact. His 1945 speed was relatively brusque. He takes E.D.U. at a stoical, almost imperial march tempo, restrained, noble, the organ swelling and the tempo kept steady, cumulatively powerful, but not as exciting as faster performances.
The companion work is the same coupling as the LP, the cover of which is also reproduced, which necessarily makes this CD short measure. I like the rich cantilena he cultivates in the Tallis Fantasia, though the spatial separation between the two string orchestras is not optimum. He’d earlier recorded the work on 78s with the BBC for HMV. He cultivated then, and here, sonorous weight, and encourages a richly vibrated string tone - hopeful, radiant, not especially mystical or interior or meditative; rather plush and extrovert, in fact. If that’s how you like your Tallis Fantasia then look no further for an LP-to-CD recommendation.
Sonorous weight, richly vibrated string tone - hopeful, radiant, not especially mystical or interior or meditative; rather plush and extrovert.