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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’), Op. 36 [27:54]
rec. 21 and 23 June 1956, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 [13:32]
rec. 1 September 1953, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
Serenade in E minor, Op. 20 [12:08]
rec. 30 April 1949, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Dream Children No.1, Op. 43/1 [3:46]
rec. 2 February 1950, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Cockaigne (In London Town) - Concert Overture, Op. 40 [14:14]
rec. 2 February 1950, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Cockaigne (In London Town) - Concert Overture, Op. 40 [13:45]
rec. 4 January 1954, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
Symphony No 2 in E flat, Op. 63 [51:37]
Rec. 8-9 June 1954, Free Trade Hall, Manchester
Land of Hope and Glory [5:19]
*Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. Opening ceremony of Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 16 November 1951)*
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB 1075-76 [71:34 + 69:41]

I’ve been collecting Elgar recordings for well over forty years now. I have a huge regard for the work of several conductors, including Boult, Elder and Handley - and Elgar’s own recordings are indispensable. However, the more I’ve listened to this wonderful music it’s Barbirolli’s performances that move me the most. The reason why is summed up for me admirably in Robert Matthew-Walker’s very good notes accompanying this latest Barbirolli Society release. He writes of JB’s performance of the Introduction and Allegro that ‘there is a virtually indefinable but nonetheless apparent character of expressive warmth here that permeates Barbirolli’s conducting of Elgar - a sense of inner involvement, almost - implying that his interpretations came from within and were not imposed from without.’ I couldn’t agree more and anyone who listens to these 1950s recordings is likely to feel the same.
 
I’ve owned all but one of these recordings in EMI versions for many years but it’s excellent to have them conveniently assembled here and in good re-masterings by Paul Baily. The set is dominated by the 1954 recording of the Second Symphony. As Mr Matthew-Walker reminds us, it was this work that gave the young conductor his first big breakthrough when, in 1927, he deputised for an ailing Beecham at an LSO concert, learning the complex score in a mere 48 hours. He made a further recording of the symphony, in stereo, in 1964 and naturally that performance benefits from richer sound. However, the 1954 performance arguably shows the best of Barbirolli in this work; overall the performance is much tauter, especially in the first movement which took 19:24 in 1964 compared with 17:05 here. In fact the overall timings for all four movements are quicker in this earlier reading yet JB doesn’t underplay the more relaxed, lyrical passages. There’s an admirable thrust and urgency in the first movement while the slow movement is simply glorious: Barbirolli knows just how this music should ‘go’ and he paces it excellently. Despite the rather thin sound the oboe threnody against the main theme (from 7:11) is very moving and Barbirolli thrusts home the climaxes in the movement passionately and unerringly. The scherzo is urgent and exciting while the finale is marvellously satisfying, the autumnal coda in particular.
 
The ‘Enigma’ Variations was a Barbirolli speciality and this 1956 performance is a very good one. He characterises all the variations very well. The theme itself really sings, as does ‘C.A.E.’ while the conductor has a dashing way with variations such as ‘Troyte’. ‘Nimrod’ is ideal: Barbirolli has the orchestra play it nobly and, above all, cantabile. He builds this variation very naturally and movingly and not as an elegy. The ‘E.D.U.’ finale is surging and confident and the Free Trade Hall organ is involved at the end to good effect.
 
We get a big performance of the Introduction and Allegro, which is played with sweep and energy. The performance has plenty of ardour but it’s always well controlled. On a different scale is the account of the Serenade in E minor. For this, we learn in the notes, Barbirolli reduced the size of the string sections and the resulting performance has a lovely sense of intimacy. His celebrated 1962 recordings of both works with the Sinfonia of London remain in a class of their own but these earlier Hallé readings are very fine.
 
There are two performances of Cockaigne and it’s interesting to note that the later, 1954, recording is some 30 seconds quicker - in 1962 when JB recorded the piece again, this time with the Philharmonia, he took 14:35. In all honesty, it’s not easy to spot differences between the two performances included here - it’s more a matter of nuance - but both are very good. The 1954 recorded sound has more body; the 1950 sound, though perfectly acceptable, has a slightly more wiry treble. Barbirolli, himself a Londoner, conducts two red-blooded, affectionate performances.
 
The one recording I didn’t have in my collection until now is the one with which the second disc ends. This is a live recording from the ceremonial re-opening of the orchestra’s Manchester home, the Free Trade Hall, which had been severely damaged during the war. The recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing Land of Hope and Glory suffers from some surface noise but her voice is well caught by the microphones and sounds glorious. There’s a palpable sense of occasion here. The big tune itself is taken pretty slowly by Barbirolli, but not too slowly, and after Ferrier has sung it everyone joins in the reprise. This re-opening of the hall must have been a powerful signal to Mancunians that their city was recovering from the ravages of war. I defy anyone to listen to this and not be moved; I certainly was.
 
Barbirolli was loyal to Elgar’s music throughout his career and his crucial role in keeping the composer’s music in the public eye even when it threatened to go out of fashion should never be forgotten. Nor should his important and consistent work in taking Elgar’s music to overseas audiences be overlooked: he was something of an evangelist for Elgar. This is an excellent set and self-recommending to Elgar collectors and to admirers of this great and big-hearted conductor.
 
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Enigma variations ~~ Symphony 2    


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