Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an original theme (Enigma), Op.36 [30.56]
Cockaigne (In London Town), Op.40 [15.07]
Froissart, Op.19 [14.23]
English Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, 28-30 July 1989
NIMBUS NI5206 [60.26]
There are basically two ways in which conductors may approach the Enigma Variations. Either they can take the music at its face value, treating the set of variations as a symphonically developed whole; or they can treat the work as a series of miniature character sketches of Elgar’s “friends pictured within”, highlighting the personalities of the miscellaneous collection of individuals involved. William Boughton in this reading opts for the second option, and the result bubbles with life.
In the opening portraits the depiction of Alice Elgar is nicely winsome and graceful, and William Meath Baker slams out of the room in grand style. The uncredited viola soloist in Ysobel is slightly recessed, but comes through nevertheless, and Nimrod proceeds nobly at a nicely steady speed. After that Dorabella sounds rather a simpering ninny, but that is largely Elgar’s fault; could he really have been so unimpressed with Dora Penny if he thought that she alone might be the one of his friends who might possibly solve the enigma? Dr Sinclair’s bulldog Dan really barks for once; I have rarely heard this little bit of musical depiction so well handled. Basil Nevison and Lady Mary Lygon could be more moodily atmospheric, but Boughton secures fine playing in the finale and the result is most exciting.
The two overtures are also excellently done. After hearing Roger Norrington’s mannered and unconvincingly nuanced reading of Cockaigne at the opening night of this year’s Proms, I almost feared that the work was losing its edge for me; but Boughton restores my faith in the score by injecting all the red blood corpuscles that the grandly romantic writing needs. Froissart is early Elgar, and not frankly one of the composer’s greatest works - would it be remembered at all if it had been written by Mackenzie and Macfarren, for example?; but again Boughton pushes plenty of adrenalin into the playing, and the result is convincing.
The recording is nicely natural, with the orchestra set slightly back in a resonant acoustic, but all the essential points in Elgar’s magnificent scoring come through loud and clear.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
William Boughton’s reading bubbles with life.