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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)

Whoever at Somm conceived or agreed to this there’s no getting away from this being tremendously enterprising. It would not surprise me one bit if the concept was put to Somm by transfer engineer and artist in his own right, Lani Spahr, whose transfers these are. He has, after all, worked with Somm before on Elgar Remastered (SOMMCD 261-4 – sadly not reviewed here) and Elgar Rediscovered (SOMMCD0167). All the recordings are live with audience with applause and hall ambience to match.

The disc is a model of one of the things the CD should be doing: filling the medium to capacity with engaging and/or controversial interpretations that one cannot simply over-hear. Toscanini’s hot-to-the-touch Enigma is a blast and despite its speed its contemplative touches can feel unhurried: an idea or mood liberated to expand. I grant that WN and Dorabella sound ferociously fast but this comes over as a counterbalance to conventionality. The sound is clean, clear and reasonably full given its age and the reputedly infamous acoustic of Studio 8H. This Enigma represents a good marriage.

You may want to contrast it with a reading controversial in another way and also American. Fly in the face of advice from the elder statesmen and compare this Toscanini, which runs to almost 27 minutes, with Bernstein’s extreme and much later reading for DG (ten minutes longer). I might eventually be forgiven for finding Bernstein’s Enigma very moving if very personal. Both Bernstein and Toscanini plough their own furrow.

In its way the Toscanini Enigma (which is fast even in comparison with Beecham) keeps company with Golovanov and Mravinsky in the Russian classics and Paul Van Kempen in his Hilversum Sibelius 7 on Pristine. Toscanini is fast even by comparison with Beecham. I heard no audible contributions from the audience as the recording goes along.

The Cello Concerto recording suffers a little more noticeably from ‘busy’ “surface”. Piatigorsky keeps on top of and pushes the tempo. Intriguing that his conductor is Barbirolli who conducted the classic EMI recording with Du Pré. The oldest recording here, and like the Falstaff, made before Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry as a combatant nation into WW2, it sounds pretty healthy for 1940. The trouble is that it tends in the direction of unfeeling. Take, as an example, the end of the first movement (4:02 onwards). Again, this is a recorded concert performance and with applause from a Carnegie Hall audience. Results were quite other in the case of Piatigorsky in the Walton concerto. He delivered a surface-skimming unrooted commercial recording which compares very unfavourably with the rather wonderful version in which he is heard live on Lyrita. This, sadly, is brusque and unengaged - not quite purged of feeling but leaning that way. A spectacle, yes, but where is the emotional dimension? When Jacqueline Du Pré and Barenboim recorded the work live in Philadelphia in 1970 for CBS we benefited with a special event that in my view excels Du Pré’s library choice on EMI.

There are more ‘busy’ surfaces from this inscription of Rodzinski’s - here very nicely tracked - Falstaff. Once again, we hear a virtuoso event - a trampling high-pressure tourney. Speed trumps emotion but in compensation we get a cliff-hanging hay-ride. At 26 minutes it compares with the norm of 34-36 minutes and Somm, to their great credit, list seven tracts of cut made by Rodzinski. At times I did not recognise this as Falstaff. It’s not a first choice for the work but hearing it was not a waste of time. It lent perspective and insight into how Elgar could be put across in the USA.

There are ten pages of really excellent and specific notes by Lani Spahr and the booklet is just superbly presented.

Essential listening in understanding how Elgar was received and progressed across the Atlantic. What next, after later American volumes: Elgar in Germany?

Rob Barnett

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