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Edward ELGAR (1854-1934)
Variations of an Original Theme Op.36 Enigma
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
also includes rehearsal footage.
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 April 1982 and BBC Omnibus studio.
Directed by Peter Butler (concert) and Humphrey Burton (rehearsal)
Aspect ratio 4:3; NTSC Region code 0
ICA CLASSICS ICAD5098 [39:07 (concert); 25:16 (documentary)]

Leonard Bernstein’s only engagement with the BBC Symphony Orchestra took place in April 1982 and resulted in the spectacular clash of cultures captured quite splendidly on this DVD. It’s always riveting and often excruciating. Bernstein had visited London on a fairly regular basis prior to this meeting with the BBCSO, appearing with the New York Philharmonic on their various tours. He made several guest appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra, including a memorable Mahler Eight at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 and a Stravinsky memorial concert in 1972. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra it was therefore something of a coup to lure the famous maestro away from the LSO.
 
Bernstein, aged sixty-three at the time, had entered a phase in his conducting career where he tended to take slow movements slower than ever before and fast movements at a rattling pace. Anyone who has heard his later Mahler recordings will know exactly where I’m coming from. This habit had developed during his final decade and it puts his rather eccentric view of the Enigma Variations into context.
 
Before watching the concert performance I would recommend playing the rehearsal sequence through first of all. Having been delayed in traffic, the conductor breezed into the rehearsal studio, made no apologies whatsoever for being late and then rudely cut off the speech of welcome being delivered by the leader, Rodney Friend who was previously the leader of the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein. It comes over as a dreadful start to a fractious rehearsal. Although not shown on the DVD, Bernstein started to lecture the orchestra on how to play Elgar and insisted on calling the composer Eddie. This was a clash between an American used to dealing with New Yorkers and an orchestra steeped in the Boult tradition. It was an accident waiting to happen. The orchestra became more and more uncomfortable, embarrassed and restless. Bernstein finally got down to the task in hand and ran into problems straightaway with the slow tempo chosen for Elgar’s theme. At one point there’s a real bust-up with a trumpet player, who doesn’t cover himself in glory with his unnecessary rudeness; maybe this was just a culmination of what had been going on before. At one point Bernstein gets his own back on the brass section when he shouts ‘you talk big but you don’t last’ at a tuba player who tries to confront the conductor and then makes a right royal mess of his part. The real icing on the cake is Nimrod, taken at around half the normal speed. The orchestra follows the conductor’s direction but clearly has no real belief in what they are being asked to deliver. 

Bernstein was never dull. He had his own views on every piece he performed. If the BBC Symphony Orchestra were expecting a bland run-through they were a million miles off the mark. Although you couldn’t always be in agreement with Bernstein’s approach, one thing’s for sure: he did everything with love, conviction and tremendous animal magnetism. In every concert and recording in which he was involved he had something new to say and for that I am grateful. The great violinist Isaac Stern referred to him once as a musician who could over-gild the lily on occasion. That’s just what he does with Elgar but it’s all done with sincerity and integrity.
 
The performance given at the concert totally belies the troubles encountered during the rehearsals. The orchestral playing is magnificent. There is tremendous detail and clarity to be heard in Bernstein’s interpretation. Some movements are fast and furious and the level of virtuosity displayed, especially by the strings, is incredible. The woodwind players excel throughout. The slower variations do have a tendency drag here and there - too much over gilding. Nimrod is a write-off but the Finale is superb.
 
In summary I found this DVD to be in turns thought-provoking, cringe-worthy, entertaining and uplifting. Quite a mix in such a short time-span.
 
John Whitmore
 

Masterwork Index: Enigma variations