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(1857-1934)Variations on an Original Theme - Enigma op.
36 (1899) [30:02] Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The
Planets, op. 32 (1914/16) [48:29]
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Symphony Orchestra (Elgar) London Philharmonic Orchestra
(Holst)/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 4, 6 August 1970, Kingsway Hall, London (Elgar) 12, 30 May,
4 June and 31 July 1978, Kingsway Hall and Studio 1, Abbey Road,
EMI MASTERS EMI CLASSICS 6317832 [78:37]
These performances of two much loved masterworks have been issued
at various times over the years. This release on the EMI Masters
Great Classical Recordings series is a reissue of the
2002 digital re-mastered recording on EMI
Gustav Holst was a composition pupil of Stanford at the Royal
College of Music. Holst and his great friend Vaughan Williams
- also a Stanford pupil - would often share critical appraisals
of each other’s compositions.
All of Holst’s works have been eclipsed by the enduring success
of The Planets. Studying astrology had become one of
Holst’s passions and he felt that each planet in the solar system
had a particular character which he attempted to depict in music.
This was the inspiration behind the composition of the seven
movement suite for large orchestra The Planets, his undoubted
Following a private performance of The Planets conducted
by Adrian Boult in 1918, eventually the first complete performance
was given by Albert Coates in November 1920 at the Queen’s Hall,
London. At the Albert Coates première Holst stated that, “These
pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the
planets … there is no programme music in them.”
Boult provides a heavy menacing tread that suffuses Mars,
the Bringer of War together with a terrifying climax.
I was struck by the glorious playing from the LPO woodwind in
Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Their swooning strings
deliver a spine-tingling tenderness. Mercury, the
Winged Messenger comes across as lively and playful like
a child in a winter wonderland. Overloaded with purpose and
enthusiasm Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity makes
quite an impact under Boult’s conducting. Not for the first
time I had slight reservations over the tuning of the LPO brass.
A mysterious trudge accumulates in Saturn, the Bringer
of Old Age opening a door onto an awesome landscape. I loved
the striking brass fanfare that opens Uranus, the
Magician a movement full of impish over-the-top boisterousness.
Neptune, the Mystic Boult take us on a journey
into a fantastic ice-palace of strange beauty.
Elgar, in contrast to Holst who attended probably the finest
music school possible, was a chiefly self-taught composer. That
said, Elgar was brought up in an environment surrounded by music.
The big break for Elgar came with his Enigma Variations
a masterwork that soon achieved a permanent place in the repertoire
and gave him international fame. Titled Variations on an
Original Theme the score to the Enigma Variations
contains a theme and set of fourteen variations that are musical
portraits of himself, his wife and various friends. It seems
that two enigmas are contained within the score. The first enigma
is the identity of the “friends pictured within” which
is easily solvable. Elgar hinted at a second enigma in the score
the solution to which has for many years has been the subject
of considerable and heated debate. It was Hans Richter who conducted
the première of the Enigma Variations at St. James’s
Hall, London in June 1899.
Opening the score the theme, an Andante, is passionate
with an intense yearning. The first variation ‘C.A.E.’
representing Elgar’s wife Caroline Alice is given a flowing
and sturdy interpretation by Boult. Variation two ‘H.D.S.-P.’
is a brief, scurrying and darting picture of Elgar’s pianist
friend Hew David Steuart-Powell. The third variation ‘R.B.T.’
with its delicate woodwind figures is a caricature of the old
trike-riding friend Richard Baxter Townshend, an amateur thespian
who was one of Elgar’s golfing companions. The ‘W.M.B.’
variation four is a showy portrait of William Meath Baker, a
door-banging country gentleman, played with such impact and
exuberance by the LSO. In the fifth variation ‘R.P.A.’,
a generally bold and energetic description of Richard Penrose
Arnold the music-loving amateur pianist there are passages of
playful high-spirits. The sixth variation ‘Ysobel’ is
a determined and almost headstrong depiction with a sensitive
element. This portrays Isabel Fitton, a Malvern lady who played
Boult brings great power to the short seventh variation ‘Troyte’,
a representation of the Malvern architect Arthur Troyte Griffith
who loved sports and the countryside. Light and sensitive with
considerable forward momentum, variation eight ‘W.N’
portrays Winifred Norbury and her impressive country home in
Sherridge. Here the music is not without the occasional passing
storm cloud. The ninth variation, the famous ‘Nimrod’,
an Adagio with one of the most memorable melodies in
the repertoire depicts Elgar’s close and trusted friend August
Jaeger. Boult obtains glorious playing and heart-wrenching sensitivity
from the LSO. ‘Dorabella’ is the tenth variation. This
is a portrait of Dora Penny the attractive and agreeable young
lady who had holidayed with the Elgars at Malvern. The music
is lithe and nimble, straining hard to achieve fun and frolics.
Filled with fervour, ‘G.R.S.’ the strong and punchy,
brief eleventh variation, pictures the activities of Dr. George
Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan.
Elgar’s amateur cellist friend Basil Nevinson the subject of
the twelfth variation ‘B.G.N.’ is depicted by one of
the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It is played
here with aching intensity. Speculation abounds that Lady Mary
Lygon is the subject of the thirteenth variationshown
by the three asterisks ‘***’. The music includes a quotation
from Mendelssohn’s Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
Here Boult marvellously interprets the sunny and welcoming Romanza,evocative of parasols, expensive designer clothes and taking
luncheon on the lawn. Heavy clouds darken the mood before returning
to the satisfying and comforting scene. Evidently Lady Lygon
was on a sea voyage to Australia when Elgar was writing the
score. What has been described as the rumble of a ship’s engines
can be heard leading to the conclusion. The Finale, the
fourteenth variation represents Elgar himself. ‘E.D.U.’
was Alice’s pet-name for her husband. Boult and the LSO articulate
the swiftly shifting and increasingly bright moods with considerable
dramatic force. Elgar certainly knew how to write an ending.
This is a desirable reissue that cannot be faulted. Wonderful
performances of two orchestral masterworks.
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