The first performance of Enigma Variations, conducted by Hans Richter on 19 June 1899 in London, made Elgar’s name virtually overnight as England’s finest composer since Purcell. He had come up with a unique creation – a sequence of musical portraits of his wife, his friends and himself, all based on a melody representing, as he later said, ‘the loneliness of the artist’.

Although the subtitle ‘Enigma’ was only added before the premiere by Elgar’s publisher, the composer suggested that ‘over the whole set another and larger “theme” goes, but is not played’. Endless musicological detective work has failed to turn up a counter-melody that ‘fits’. This must be because there isn’t one: as the Elgar authority Michael Kennedy suggested, the composer was thinking of the work’s broader, abstract theme – of friendship and love, set amid the social scene in and around his Worcestershire home.

The best recording of Elgar's Enigma Variations: Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra

Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder (2002)
Hallé CD HLL 7501

Besides coming through the ranks as a professional violinist, Elgar played several other instruments fluently, and his knowledge here engendered a work so securely written for every section of the orchestra that it’s almost impossible for a performance to come off badly. Then again, achieving an exceptional one isn’t straightforward either: the range of musical portraits is so varied, with orchestral imagination to match, that finding a near-ideal touch with each one can be elusive.

Sir Mark Elder’s interpretation with the Hallé, recorded live in Manchester in 2002, is as good as you can get. The orchestra’s way with the Enigma theme sets a benchmark, with the strings beautifully shaded and balanced. The variation sequence that follows offers one delight after another – the poise of the opening woodwind in ‘R.B.T.’ (Richard Townshend); a hushed beginning to ‘Nimrod’ (Alfred Jaeger, Elgar’s publisher), making the music’s growth towards its exalted peroration all the more memorable; and a wonderfully poignant contribution from the cellos in ‘B.G.N.’ (Basil Nevinson, Elgar’s cellist colleague).

The emotional charge that builds through all this is genuinely moving. There’s a separately recorded bonus of Elgar’s original finale to the work, whose abrupt final bars Jaeger and Richter persuaded him to expand after that history-making first performance. We named the Hallé Orchestra as one of the best orchestras in the world

More great recordings of Elgar's Enigma Variations:

London Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult (1970)
Warner Classics 764 0152

Sir Adrian Boult knew Elgar personally, which gives special authority to his recordings of Enigma. The recorded sound of his last one, made in 1970, impressively conveys the focused lustre that he was able to conjure from the orchestras he conducted. No other recording combines unportentous grandeur with sensibility as this one does.

Among countless memorable touches are the searching melancholy of the Enigma theme itself, the beautifully balanced violin-and-cello counterpoint to the woodwind melody in ‘C.A.E.’ (Alice, Elgar’s wife), the almost keening intensity of ‘Nimrod’, and Boult’s pacing of the ‘E.D.U.’ finale, with its carefully judged holding-back of the ‘C.A.E.’ theme’s recall before the rousing conclusion. That said, it’s possible to feel that the total effect sounds too abstractly symphonic, perhaps missing the affection of Elgar’s musical portrait-painting.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (2016)
Hyperion CDA68101

While Elgar’s idiom is quintessentially English in tone, it was based on deep technical understanding of Austro-German orchestral tradition. The connection is strikingly clear in the response drawn by Martyn Brabbins from the BBC Scottish Symphony – the Bruckner-suggesting unison horns in ‘C.A.E’, or the earnestness of the massed strings in ‘R.P.A.’ (Richard Arnold). There are imaginative touches too, as in ‘Dorabella’ (Dora Penny), whose solo viola and twittering woodwind (does she take herself just a bit seriously?) are offset by the central section’s flickering strings (maybe she doesn’t). And a haunting sense of space is conjured in the ‘Romanza’ variation – almost certainly immortalising Helen Weaver, Elgar’s former fiancée, who had emigrated to New Zealand.

Martyn Brabbins appointed music director with the English National Opera

RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Brabbins conducts Elgar's Enigma Variations

Royal Albert Hall Orchestra/Edward Elgar (1926)
Naxos Historical Great Conductors 8.111022

Listeners reluctant to approach a historical document dating from 1926 can be reassured: the remastered recorded sound is excellent, with decent tonal and dynamic range and miminal hiss. While the subtler orchestral effects can’t always be made out, the energy and directness of Elgar’s conducting come across in fine style. The strings’ portamento sliding between notes, then a standard device, is now less familiar, but Elgar also deploys less rubato tempo-bending than most of today’s conductors.

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Special moments include the whimsical string lines in ‘W.N.’ (Winifred Norbury) and a forthright choice of tempo for ‘Nimrod’. Elgar’s way with his concluding self-portrait, ‘E.D.U.’, must be the most viscerally exciting ever recorded.

And one to avoid:

Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (2009)
Signum Classics SIGCD168

‘Avoid’ is perhaps harsh: there are no perversities in Sir Andrew Davis’s 2009 interpretation, and the Philharmonia’s contribution has all the rich-toned professionalism one would expect. Yet this is one of those live recordings where, for whatever reason, the result takes too long to lift itself beyond a sense of high-class routine. In Basil Nevinson’s variation (No. 12 out of 14), the music’s heart at last truly seems to beat. That’s leaving it late.

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