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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concert Overture – In the South (Alassio), op. 50 (1904) [23:58]
Serenade for String Orchestra, op. 20 (1892) [12:19]
Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36 ‘Enigma’ (1899) [30:03]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Ian Tracey (organ)
rec. 2018, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
ONYX 4205 [66:31]

Vasily Petrenko’s previous recordings of Elgar’s first two symphonies have in general been well, if perhaps rather politely, received, with reservations regarding some lack of passion and a degree of understatement (review). Certainly, they didn’t make the same impact or garner the same accolades as his series of recordings of major works by Rachmaninov, which were indisputably superlative. There was some discussion around whether Petrenko was inevitably better suited to recreating Russian, rather than quintessentially English, music, although I have always thought that to be something of a red herring, in that I am not sure that there is anything especially English about Elgar’s idiom, or whether his music requires that quality – or indeed what exactly it is, as German, Italian or even Japanese artists, for example seem increasingly able to encompass it; viz. highly successful recordings by Barenboim and Sir Colin Davis with the Staatskapelle, Sinopoli with the Philharmonia and Tadaaki Otaka and the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra in Symphony No. 3, to name but a few. I have an affection, too, for a most unlikely version of the Enigma Variations by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That is not to denigrate classic recordings by such as Boult, Barbirolli, Handley and Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé, but I think we should guard against chauvinism in matters Elgarian. Petrenko’s affection for the music is much in evidence in this latest release, but the competition is formidable; all three works here are in receipt of numerous, classic recordings and there is the problem that some of us are imprinted with those we first heard.

Alassio is the most Straussian of Elgar’s works and among my favourite of his compositions. I have a great attachment to two recordings by Sinopoli and Elder; the latter in particular is overflowing with exuberance and passion, “full of the warm South” – and here, I think, Petrenko bids fair to rival both those accounts, aided by the magnificent horn-playing from the RLPO and rich, deep sound from the Onyx engineers. What a pity, however, that the wonderful, climactic horn whoop cannot be heard properly at 2’18”; it is the first of many high points in this tempestuous tone poem and it is muffed – not wrongly played, just virtually inaudible. Otherwise, so much about this reading is ideal; it is glowingly played: languorously indulgent in the gently rocking evocations of siesta and ringingly powerful in the bell-tolling, percussion and timpani-heavy declamatory passages. The viola and horn solos in the central section are meltingly played and the whole is crowned with a grand and ebullient coda.

The Serenade for Strings, however, is briskly, coolly played, without any of the affectionate nuances of phrasing which enliven Barbirolli’s famous version with the New Philharmonia and which make for a much more interesting and involving listening experience, despite its inferior sound and Glorious John’s habitual groaning. I remain unmoved by Petrenko’s Larghetto; the beseeching opening sounds almost perfunctory, whereas Barbirolli’s yearns and swoons; the concluding Allegretto is similarly devoid of the tender rapture which infuses Barbirolli’s account.

The Enigma Variations are in the same vein: there seems to be a reluctance on Petrenko’s part to surrender to the extremes of exuberance and melancholy the music contains, so everything proceeds tidily and pleasantly enough until comparisons are made with the bolder, more confident embrace of Elgar’s overt emotionalism evinced in classic recordings. The most obvious illustration of that failing is in the most famous movement, ‘Nimrod’ which simply does not engage then move the listener with the same force; Barbirolli plays it considerably faster yet with him time stands still; not here – it sounds merely rushed and anticlimactic. The playing is beautiful, the sound exemplary, but there is a hollowness at the heart of the exposition.

The notes provide brief, contextual introductions to the three pieces and additionally a nice little guide to the character of the friend portrayed in each variation. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this decently played trio of core Elgar works, but each is surpassed by a previous, better recordings.

Ralph Moore



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