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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (‘Enigma’) (1899) [32:17]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 (1916) [49:38]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2013/17, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS2068 SACD [82:42]

This particular music lover and record collector has now reached the age when looking back is a frequent activity. Listening to works that one has known for more than half a century, the ‘Enigma’ Variations, for instance, is a particular stimulus to this. My thoughts return to school assembly, waiting for the arrival of the Headmaster, and the classical music that was played as we waited. The exchange between the grave, unison string melody and the stuttering woodwind and horns figure in the ‘RPA’ variation particularly appealed to me at that time, and I was hooked. It’s been a real pleasure to rediscover all that in this outstandingly fine performance from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton.
Elgar’s music works to its best advantage when the performers do their best simply to put into practice what he wrote. His scores are peppered with tempo, dynamics and articulation markings. There are twenty-one markings in the first six bars of ‘Enigma’, and that in the first violin part alone, give or take the odd slur! Micro-managing all this is a real challenge, but Litton and his superb orchestra get pretty close throughout the work, bringing out details one had forgotten or had never previously heard. The music thus acquires the proper Elgarian nobility of spirit, with no emotional excess. You will hear this particularly in the first variation, Elgar’s portrait of his wife, as you also will in the most famous variation. Only newcomers to the repertoire will need to be told that ‘Nimrod’ was A J Jaeger, Elgar’s editor at Novello, a huge supporter of the composer who was, none the less, unafraid to point out where he felt improvements might be made. Theirs was a relationship built on respect and trust, and the variation is a sincere and moving expression of admiration and friendship, far removed from the overblown, grandiose tribute that it has frequently become and which has led to its association with the funerals of eminent persons. I felt sure that Litton would get it just right, and he does.
Among many other details to which one could draw the listener’s attention, the string crossing exercise in ‘Ysobel’ is deliciously taken by the first viola. And though it is a pity to single out any one player among the wonderful wind principals, delicious is also a word I would ascribe to the playing of this orchestra’s principal bassoon. The fast variations are played with great virtuosity. In ‘Troyte’, for example, Elgar marks the rushing violin passages ‘brillante’, and that perfectly describes how they are played. We’re led to believe that ‘GRS’ is really a portrait of the eminent organist’s bulldog, Dan. This performance is positively cinematographic, so vivid that you can almost the see the beast shaking himself and hear his bark as he hauls himself out of the river Wye.
This is the ‘Enigma’ Variations played with a natural freshness that is wholly admirable. It won’t displace old favourites, Barbirolli, for instance – how could it? – but it is finer, cleaner, and closer to my view of the true Elgarian spirit than any performance I have heard in recent years.
A word, now, about the sound. The Elgar was recorded in 2013 by a team led by Jens Braun. It is one of the finest recordings I have ever heard. I listened to this SACD in ordinary stereo, and the quiet cymbal clashes in the final variation seemed to be in the room with me. The overall sound of the orchestra, in quite a reverberant hall, is glorious. The Holst, recorded in the same venue nearly four years later under Andreas Ruge and Matthias Spitzbarth, sounds differently. The orchestra seems closer and more immediate, with some instruments – the bass oboe, the string soloists – a little under the spotlight. Both recordings are extraordinarily detailed, a plus given each composer’s orchestral mastery. Some listeners may find that this takes away some of the mystery in the final movement of The Planets, though the offstage women’s chorus is very well managed.
Incidentally, this is my first encounter with BIS’s new, sustainable, packaging. No sign of the absurdly-named jewel case, no plastic at all, in fact. The disc and the booklet slip into a cardboard slipcase. It’s very satisfying to handle and will take up less space on the shelves. I hope other labels will follow.
Litton’s launches ‘Mars’ at a tempo rather faster than the dogged one adopted by Boult, and the result is more exciting though less implacable and mechanistic. The first climax is shattering, thanks to the power of the orchestra and the quality of the recording. ‘Venus’ is very calm and beautifully played, with several of the orchestral soloists allowed to shine. I sometimes wished for quieter playing, but the conductor brings out many previously unheard details, as he also does in his beautifully lithe performance of ‘Mercury’. Most of these details are there in the score. ‘Jupiter’ is genuinely jolly, where the conductor allows himself a fair amount of freedom of pulse. He keeps the big tune moving – this is more than justified – and a sudden, unmarked, subito piano is most effective. I find the final passage of ‘Saturn’ one of the most beautiful in all twentieth century music – comforting balm to those of us nearing old age! – and so it is here, though maybe the accompanying wind and harp figurations are a little too loud. ‘Uranus’ sounds more like a magician than he generally does, circus-like rather than just noisy and garrulous. I have never found ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ very convincing, and this performance, fine though it is, has not changed my mind. Some will be scandalised, but I now feel performances of The Planets should end with Colin Matthews’s magnificent ‘Pluto’.

Established collectors will probably have multiple performances of these works in their collection. They may not have them coupled together, however, and that is a bonus, especially for those lucky youngsters coming new to these works and for whom this disc is the perfect choice. Superbly recorded and with an excellent insert note by Philip Borg-Wheeler, it carries a most convincing performance of The Planets and a revelatory one of the ‘Enigma’ Variations. Why hesitate?
William Hedley

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