Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sir John Barbirolli conducts Elgar
Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36 (1899) [27:55]
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1819) [27:10]
Elegy, Op. 58 (1909) [4:01]
André Navarra (cello)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 1956-57, studio
IDIS 6624 [59:08]
First, a minor mystery regarding the sound engineering on these recordings. The recording information on this IDIS issue is lamentably scant, but insofar as I can tell from some cursory research, the Enigma was recorded for Pye in June 1956 by Mercury engineers in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. However, the Theme itself is in mono and stereo begins only at the start of the first Variation. This is unsettling, especially as the violins sustain a B natural forming the link between the two movements, during which the aural picture changes abruptly from mono to stereo. I have no idea why; perhaps the beginning of the stereo tape was lost or damaged, or someone threw a switch at the close of the Theme. This was a time of experimentation in stereo but you would hardly guess it from the superlative quality of these analogue recordings, made on 35 mm film rather than half inch recording tape, according to standard Mercury practice.
Pye presumably did not have stereo equipment in June 1956, yet they recorded the Elegy and the Introduction and Allegro for Strings later in stereo in the December of that same year. Presumably they would therefore have recorded this Cello Concerto in stereo in June 1957 yet here it appears in mono – excellent mono, to be sure, but old technology nonetheless. Again, perhaps the original stereo master was lost, damaged or in some manner unsatisfactory.
Thus we are left with the Enigma (except for the opening Theme) and the Elegy in stereo, with the Cello Concerto sandwiched between them in mono, even though it was recorded in the year following those first two items.
This 2011 re-mastering by Danilo Prefumo for IDIS is also puzzling. Although the sound per se is superb, despite some slight screech on the upper strings in the mono tracks, the pauses in between tracks in the Cello Concerto are irritatingly short and consist of audible “dead sound” rather than the ambient noise and slight hiss which would suggest the continuity of a concert, as if he had not selected “flac lossless”. Worse, the ends of the Cello Concerto and “Elegy” are cut short before the sound has faded away naturally; I cannot imagine that this is the fault of the original recording. IDIS provides no notes or recording information beyond “Studio recording” and the year; all we have are track-listings.
Yet this is still a very enjoyable and valuable disc, such is the quality of the performances. They have been somewhat overshadowed by his recordings made in the 1960s for EMI with the LSO and the Philharmonia, yet the Hallé sounds their equal here. Barbirolli’s way with Elgar was never over-reverential; indeed he could seem brisk were it not for the genial manner in which he so carefully brings out details and constantly makes telling, minute adjustments to phrasing. His accounts of the Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto are amongst the swiftest on record – only Pierre Fournier’s version of the latter with the Berlin Philharmonic is faster. Barbirolli’s interpretation of Nimrod could seem even a little peremptory to the casual listener – but it isn’t; his tempo is more Andante than Adagio yet still builds very satisfyingly from some really soft, delicate playing to a noble climax without courting sentimentality.
Barbirolli has clearly envisioned the Enigma Variations as an affectionate tribute to friends rather than some monumental statement and his interpretation reflects that affection in its wit and warmth. While I still enjoy a more grand and stately manner such as Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic bring to this music in my wild-card favourite recording from 1972, Barbirolli’s approach seems to me to be much more in the true Elgarian spirit, avoiding any hint of bombast. Elgar’s tribute to his wife (No.II) is tenderly phrased, Troyte (No.VII) is wonderfully animated, the Intermezzo is charmingly graceful, the Romanza (No.VII) passionate and the Finale thrilling, complete with organ. This is not Elgar the patriotic old buffer, but the composer as a subtle and sensitive soul.
There is no doubt that this account of the Cello Concerto with André Navarra has been overshadowed by Barbirolli’s later recording with Jacqueline du Pré, yet apart from the obvious disadvantage of mono sound it is by no means necessarily inferior. From the very opening, Navarra’s attack tells us that this will be a virile, direct interpretation without affectation or undue melancholy. There is always room for du Pré’s freer, more rhapsodic approach or Lloyd Webber’s more thoughtful and ponderous delivery, but in spirit Navarra is closest to the aforementioned recording by another French cellist, Fournier with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1965. He brings a richness and depth of tone to the music, sharing Navarra’s lack of artifice or striving for conscious effect, but also has the advantage over Navarra of sumptuous sound. However, he is in fact recorded too close, with the orchestra pushed into the background. Furthermore, seductive though Fournier is, I do not think he is technically quite as adept as Navarra: a few slips and imprecisions creep in and his Finale lacks the requisite tension, although the aristocratic poise and inner fire of his version still carry the day for me.
Navarra had a neater, more slender sound with a fast vibrato; it is leaner than Fournier or du Pré, who had a uniquely plush tone. The first movement is robust and defiant. In the Lento of the second movement, he is not as overtly elegiac as du Pré’s, but he is always musical and impassioned and both steadier and more tonally centred than Lloyd Webber. Nobody, however, matches du Pré’s tightness and accuracy in the tumbling semi-quavers of the Allegro molto or her joyous emphasis of the pizzicato flourish concluding that bravura passage. Yet in the famous Adagio, Navarra’s command of graded dynamics, the long line and his nuanced phrasing are especially striking. The Finale, to borrow a fellow reviewer’s phrase, “swaggers cockily”, recapturing the defiant note of the opening and ending more positively than more desolate interpretations.
Finally, the 1956 Elegy is, I think, superior to the stereo account of ten years later: it conveys a more poignant conviction, making the slightly premature cut-off all the more regrettable.
Despite its technical flaws and peculiarities this is a disc to give great pleasure to the connoisseur of the partnership between Elgar and Barbirolli.
  Ralph Moore
Will give great pleasure to the connoisseur of the partnership between Elgar and Barbirolli.