Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme - Enigma op. 36 (1899) [30:02]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 4, 6 August 1970, Kingsway Hall, London
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Planets, op. 32 (1914/16) [48:29]
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 12, 30 May, 4 June and 31 July 1978, Kingsway Hall and Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
EMI MASTERS EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 31783 2 [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 Classics 7243 5 67748 2 7.

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 masterwork.

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 the viola.

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 variation shown 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.

Michael Cookson

This is a desirable reissue that cannot be faulted. Wonderful performances of two orchestral masterworks.