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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857- 1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, (‘Enigma Variations’) Op. 36 [32:17]
Gustav HOLST (1874 – 1934)
The Planets, Op. 32 [49:38]
Female Voices from Bergen Philharmonic Choir & Edvard Grieg Kor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2013/17, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Hybrid SACD/CD Stereo/Multichannel; reviewed in CD stereo
BIS BIS2068 SACD [82:42]

It has been said that certain conductors have a keen sense for obtaining the exact performance they want from the orchestra but lack the interpretative ideas necessary to bring off the music effectively, while other conductors have the imagination and insight but not the ability to get the orchestra to enact their vision of the score. Conductor Andrew Litton, I’m convinced, has both the interpretive savvy and ability to get the orchestra to deliver his take on the music convincingly.

His ongoing Prokofiev symphony cycle and recent Copland Billy the Kid and Rodeo on BIS are hugely impressive as well as other recordings from the past, like the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 and Mahler Symphony No. 2 on Delos, among others. He succeeds again with this utterly splendid disc of two warhorses, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Holst’s The Planets. Here Litton presents stellar versions of these works with a Norwegian ensemble he served as Music Director of from 2003-2015 and currently serves as Conductor Laureate. Once again, these accounts will challenge the finest renditions available from the considerable competition.

Litton recorded each work once before, the Enigma Variations in 1988 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Virgin Classics and The Planets with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1997, the latter paired with Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra on Delos, which I possess. Let me deal first with The Enigma Variations since it comes first on the disc. I do not have Litton’s first account of the work but managed to hear it in preparation for this review: it is paced slightly more briskly than his newer version by about one and a half minutes, but is otherwise quite similar. Not surprisingly, it is also quite excellent.

In this new account on BIS Litton and the orchestra capture the somber though serene moods in their statement of Elgar’s “original theme” at the outset, but the first variation (C.A.E.—the composer’s wife) has an appropriately warmer character. The next three variations (H.D.S-P., R.B.T. and W.M.B.), all quite brief and energetic, are nicely realized here, R.B.T. brimming with a sense of playful and infectious joy. Litton effectively captures the mood swings in R.P.A. (Variation 5), and Troyte (No. 7) is brilliantly brought off, as percussion, strings and brass race with manic excitement.

One thing I like about both of Litton’s recordings is his handling of Nimrod (Variation 9): he milks the orchestra for all the passion and beauty it can yield and without rushing the tempo as some conductors do (George Hurst with the Bournemouth SO, for instance). Litton’s Nimrod is as well realized as in any version I’ve heard and the brilliant contrast Elgar inserted with Dorabella, which follows, is another splendidly realized picture in this performance, particularly in the playful way the strings and woodwinds enact this charming music. G.R.S. (No. 11) alights the mood with the same kind of energy as in Troyte. Contrast in nicely realized in the ensuing B.G.N. and Litton delivers the mixed moods in the following Romanza most effectively. The closing variation, a depiction of the composer himself, is especially colourful here, the brass exuberant and stately, the strings hopeful and energetic. A brilliant close to an exceptional performance!

What is remarkable about the new version of The Planets is that each of the seven movements is but seconds different from its counterpart in the Litton/Dallas rendition. The overall timings are therefore almost identical, though BIS allows about a half minute additional time after the fade-out in Neptune. Even certain interpretive features in this performance like ritards, for example, are retained, if sometimes in a slightly more pronounced way. Thus, both versions are quite similar though not identical. The Dallas performance was rightly highly praised in its day, but I believe I would give the edge to the new BIS effort.

Mars is a knock-out performance here: nervous energy, blood-and-guts tension, and lots of raw power abound. The music never comes across as extreme or wanton or reckless, but sounds precisely executed with vitality and spirit, in the end quite suited to the “Bringer of War” tag it carries. Venus is appropriately gentle and serene, while Mercury is playful with scampering strings and winds that exude a gossamer etherality. Jupiter is robust and brimming with swagger as its sonorities proudly ring out, Litton applying rubato most effectively, especially in the final moments.
Saturn begins ominously, as it should, Litton working up tension with deft manipulation of dynamics, particularly in the wind playing early on. The outburst midway through, with tubular bells frenziedly sending alarm, is most effective and ominous sounding. Uranus here and in just about every performance I’ve heard clearly foreshadows some of the sounds in Vaughan Williams’ last three symphonies. It is brilliantly realized in this performance, as Litton and company effectively capture the sense of menace and dark humor. Neptune is appropriately mysterious and fantasy-like here, its music evoking both the sinister and the heavenly. The female chorus has a distant sound perspective, as Holst wanted, and its singing is hypnotic, carrying you gently off to some astral place.

The sound reproduction BIS provides on this SACD is vivid and well balanced, quite state of the art. Now as for comparisons with the very plentiful competition, I can say Litton finishes very high in each work. In The Planets the strongest challenge comes from Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique Montreal on Decca, but, alas, there is no coupling. There are many others of course, but Litton and Dutoit would be my top two, and thus, for obvious reasons, Litton’s new effort gets the nod. As for The Enigma Variations we have, in the crowded field, Boult (several versions) and Solti, with the Chicago SO on Decca, both with quite fine accounts, if you don’t mind their generally brisk tempo choices. Again though, I must choose the new Litton effort over the competition. For fans of Karajan and Monteux, there is an interesting budget disc pairing: Karajan in The Planets with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1961, and Monteux leading the London SO in The Enigma Variations, from 1958. But of course the sound reproduction isn’t ideal. In the end then, Litton with this fine Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra would be my first choice in these works, hands down.

Robert Cummings
Previous review: William Hedley

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