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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]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini (Enigma)
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli (Concerto), Artur Rodzinski (Falstaff)
rec. 5 Nov 1949, Radio City Studio 8H, New York (Enigma); Carnegie Hall, New York: 10 Nov 1940 (Concerto); 10 Oct 1943 (Falstaff). AAD

These transfers are the work of the highly experienced Lani Spahr, who also contributes the detailed and interesting booklet essay. Spahr has collaborated with SOMM previously on two historic Elgar issues: Elgar Rediscovered (review) and Elgar Remastered (SOMMCD 261-4). I haven’t heard either of those collections though I have come across Lani Spahr’s excellent work elsewhere.
The three recordings included here are all of great interest to Elgar collectors. Toscanini’s way with the ‘Enigma’ Variations is familiar thanks to a number of recordings, including a 1935 live account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (review). I’m not sure, but it’s possible that the present performance, which dates from 1949, is the one from latest in Toscanini’s career. There’s much to admire, not least the excellent, alert playing of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I find the interpretation variable: some of it I like very much, other aspects trouble me. On the positive side, the Theme and Variation I are warmly played while the second and third variations are brisk and alert. ‘Troyte’ is full of energy and brio while ‘G.R.S.’ fairly flies by. ‘B. G. N.’ is eloquently delivered, not least by the principal cellist. On the debit side of the ledger, though, Variation VIII (‘W. N.’) is surprisingly brisk – too much so for my taste – and ‘Dorabella’ is also on the swift side: the charming little hesitations really don’t make their proper effect. ‘Nimrod’ may divide opinion. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Toscanini doesn’t take too sentimental an approach; his tempo is flowing and he emphasises the nobility in the music, not treating it as an elegy. I welcome that, but some – including, perhaps, me on a different day – may long for a little more breadth. The finale is big, sweeping and confident. Overall, there are a few things in Toscanini’s interpretation that cause my eyebrows to rise but it’s still a notable performance. The sound is good given the 70-year-old vintage and Lani Spahr’s transfer is very successful.
The New York Philharmonic didn’t programme Elgar’s Cello Concerto very often. The work was first heard in the city in 1922 but that was in a performance by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Lani Spahr tells us. The NYPSO itself didn’t play the concerto until 1938 – and then it was heard in Lionel Tertis’s arrangement for viola. In 1940 the orchestra finally gave the work in its original form for cello and orchestra in two performances with Gregor Piatigorsky, of which the one included here is the second. This performance will be of great interest to followers of the cellist because it’s the only known recording of the work by him.
Given its rarity value, then, I wish I could warm more to the performance. Piatigorsky’s opening recit sounds laboured to me but then the first movement proper flows quite swiftly. On one level that’s welcome; one doesn’t want to hear this music pulled about excessively. However, as I listened it seemed to me that Piatigorsky was offering a rather too objective view of the music; I didn’t detect much exploration of the music’s depths. The second movement goes well. In the Adagio third movement Piatigorsky doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve but I liked his expressive singing tone. The way Barbirolli opens the finale comes as a shock: the short orchestral introduction is hasty to the point of being brusque. The main Allegro, ma non troppo is done briskly and though the performance holds together I didn’t always feel it was 100% secure. The Poco pił lento – Adagio section comes off well; Piatigorsky at last reaches under the surface of the music and Barbirolli supports him well. Overall, though, I found this performance of the concerto a disappointment and more than once it crossed my mind to wonder how often, if at all, the great cellist had played the work prior to this pair of concerts.
The disc ends with something of a curiosity in the shape of a performance of Falstaff conducted by Artur Rodzinski. It comes from his debut programme as the NYPSO’s Permanent Conductor. In the booklet Lani Spahr very reasonably questions why Rodzinski selected this work. As he points out, the conductor was by no means known for his Elgar. Furthermore, the New York orchestra hadn’t played Falstaff since 1917. So, it was an unusual choice, not least for a debut concert, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear Rodzinski inflicted significant cuts upon the score: 291 bars in all were cut – the excisions are detailed in the booklet. The cuts explain why the performance plays for just 26 minutes, whereas a full performance will usually take between about 33 and 35 minutes. (Elgar’s own 1931/32 recording with the LSO plays for 32:49.) The NYPSO plays the music well; the performance has vigour and commitment. The more I listened to the performance it seemed to me that Rodzinski was presenting it as a kind of Strauss tone poem. He does the flamboyant passages quite well though, ideally, I’d have liked him to marry the swagger and energy with a touch more expansiveness. I’m less convinced by his way with the more introverted passages. That said, the ‘Dream Interlude’ is nicely turned, if a little clear-eyed. Hal’s rejection of Falstaff on becoming king almost goes for nothing in this performance and though the Fat Knight’s death is quite well done it didn’t move me. This is, in short, an efficient performance but not a compelling one. For me, Rodzinski doesn’t tell the story and in any case the cuts hobble the work.
Despite my reservations over the performances of both the concerto and Falstaff this is still a very interesting compilation and Elgar enthusiasts will find it intriguing, not least because it offers performances by some performers who one does not normally associate with Elgar’s music. This particular Toscanini performance of ‘Enigma’ is new to CD and Rodzinski’s Falstaff has never been issued commercially in any format. It’s also healthy and stimulating to hear performances from outside the English performing tradition. There is some surface noise at times but in general Lani Spahr’s transfers seem to me to have been extremely successful. There is applause after each work but otherwise the audiences are commendably quiet. I note this is billed as Volume 1 so I’ll be fascinated to see what other Elgar performances from the other side of the Atlantic may be offered to us in the future.
John Quinn

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Ian Lace

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