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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Elgar from America: Volume 1
Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma' Op. 36 (1899) [26:45]
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [26:08]
Falstaff, Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 (1913) [26:00]
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (Enigma)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli (Concerto); Artur Rodzinski (Falstaff)
rec. 5 November 1949, Radio City Studio 8H, New York (Enigma); Carnegie Hall, 10 November 1940 (Concerto); 10 October 1943 (Falstaff)
SOMM ARIADNE 5005 [78.55]

How well I remember the Toscanini ‘Enigma’! It was one of the first recordings I purchased, in its LP format, an HMV ALP release, as I recall, sometime in the 1950s when I was discovering the world of classical music in my late teens and early twenties. I remember this recording being played at one of the Peterborough Recorded Music Society meetings. Their equipment included a thermionic valve amplifier and a pretty good Goodman speaker (at that time we were strictly mono!) I recall being very impressed with Toscanini’s sturdy reading, which was a very good test of our loudspeaker’s capability, particularly its bass end.

I am wondering if this SOMM release is the HMV ALP recording, shorn of the audience applause that I knew. Intriguingly the CD booklet has a note that it is the first time that this performance has appeared on CD but there is no mention of any previous LP appearance.

To the performance. Unsurprisingly, Toscanini’s reading is pretty rapid but the female variations are tenderly and romantically rendered, ‘Nimrod’ is noble enough, the ‘Romanza’ intriguing and the final peroration as ‘nobilmente’ as Elgar might have wished for.

How fascinating to realise that Piatigorski’s recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto was recorded in 1940 with John Barbirolli and that Barbirolli would conduct Jacqueline du Pré in her celebrated recording of the same Concerto in 1965.

It is interesting to compare the movement timings of Piatigorski’s recording with that of Du Pré:
Piatigorski: 6:50;4.40; 4.52 and 10.06
Du Pré: 7.58;4.28; 5.15 and 12.15
Such differences suggest contrasting approaches and there is no doubt that Du Pré selects a much more sensitive, emotional approach. Piatigorski is cooler, more stoic, more robustly masculine. His Adagio moderato is strongly assertive; looking back with satisfaction with only the slightest feeling of ‘what might have been’. The Lento - Allegro molto is a little hesitant and thoughtful yet positive and then joyful and with playful recollections, positive and happy with Barbirolli agreeing merrily. Piatigorski’s Adagio is deeply felt but not self-deprecating, emotions in check while the concluding movement, after the swagger, ‘what could have been’ might be said to be expressed rather than a despairing wallow; a stoical acceptance of fate?

The inclusion of Rodzinsky’s recording of Falstaff is something of a curiosity. For one thing it is a somewhat wayward reading for unaccountably – unless broadcasting time limitations demanded such drastic cuts, on that occasion, were a deciding factor – this reading lasts something like 26 minutes instead of an expected 36. Whatever, Elgar’s Falstaff, for American audiences, must have been an unusual item, little known and unless they were very familiar with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the music and the story behind it could have been baffling to put it mildly. Its strength lies in the charm of Rodzinsky’s reading of the two dream interludes. Here with unabashed use of rubatti and portamenti, they are really quite affecting.

The 16-page SOMM recording booklet carries excellent notes by Lani Spahr who produced the recording and performed the first class audio restorations. Illustrations of the three concert posters are included; and a photograph of Piatigorski taken in 1940 when he recorded this reading of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

Ian Lace

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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