The booklet accompanying this CD is minimalist in style. We read on the back of the box that IDIS stands for Istituto Discografico Italiano, and, in the booklet, that the re-mastering was done in September 2011 by Danilo Prefumo. There is a track-list, but other than that, nothing. So it’s thanks to an earlier, EMI Phoenixa CD, that we learn that all three works were recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, the Variations in June 1956, the Elegy in December 1956, and the Cello Concerto in May 1957. We also learn that the Variations was recorded by none other than Wilma Cozart and Harold Lawrence, responsible for so many stunning recordings on the Mercury label. The re-mastering on the EMI CD is credited to Michael Dutton, as it also is on an even earlier, PRT CD, coupling the two principal works. The performance of the Cello Concerto has also been issued by Testament, coupled with Navarra’s performance of the Dvor(ák Concerto.
Older collectors will probably remember these performances from their appearance on a Pye LP. I hope they hold them in the same affection as I do. They are splendid performances, and no allowance need be made for the fact that they are more than half a century old. The “Enigma” bristles with energy and passion. I am always ready to forgive Barbirolli his indulgences, but it’s not necessary in this most ardent and impulsive performance. I wish he hadn’t encouraged his woodwind players to distort the rhythm of poor Dorabella’s stuttering little phrase, but this is my only disappointment. André Navarra’s performance of the Cello Concerto, a work particularly close to the conductor’s heart, is magnificent. It’s a matter of taste, perhaps, but when the inevitable comparisons are made between this reading and Barbirolli’s later one with Jacqueline du Pré, Navarra wins for me, a performance all the more moving for its emotional restraint. It is not cold, but the heart is not visible on the sleeve. It is certainly closer in spirit to Elgar’s own recorded performance with Beatrice Harrison (though that performance is altogether too businesslike for my liking.) Only the scherzo, at a fairly deliberate tempo, might disappoint some listeners.
Unfortunately, there are some problems. The first one is very near the start. “Enigma” was recorded in stereo, but for some reason, in this Italian transfer, the opening is in mono, reverting to stereo only at the beginning of the first variation. Since this variation follows without a break what actually happens is that the first violins, holding a B natural over the bar-line, suddenly shoot off to the left in mid-note, a most disconcerting effect. For the rest the re-mastering seems to have been expertly done, but are those very few traces of distortion in louder passages slightly more pronounced in the IDIS disc than in either of Michael Dutton’s (which may be one and the same for all I know)? The Cello Concerto seems only to have been recorded in mono, but that should certainly not discourage you. What has not been well managed are the breaks between movements. The Cello Concerto follows only four seconds after the triumphant close of “Enigma”, so you need to programme the player or be very nimble on your feet if you don’t want any spillage. Almost worse than this is the virtual absence of any pause at all between the scherzo of the Concerto and the sublime slow movement. You really do need a few moments of preparation here. The disc ends with the touching, short Elegy – a good idea in programme terms – but the three second gap is sadly inadequate.
The PRT issue – with, remarkably, an even less informative booklet than the current issue – is very hard to find now. With a bit of searching you can locate copies of the EMI issue. It really is worth it, as the disc has been better managed than this one, and includes a superb performance of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, recorded the day after the Elegy.