Richard Strauss Symphonia domestica

Elgar’s fond descriptions of family and friends – complete with the odd ribbing – in the Enigma Variations has a companion in Strauss’s 1903 affectionate tone poem representing 24 hours in his family life. ‘It will be partly lyrical, partly humorous – a triple fugue will bring together Papa, Mama and Baby,’ he commented.

Like Elgar’s work, various characters and their moods are discernible (only the husband has a fiery side – his wife and child are invariably tranquil and easy-going), and the action revolves around scenes of utmost simplicity: the baby resisting bedtime, the husband working at his desk, his wife gently seducing him… It all culminates in that fugue, conjuring up an almighty family hoo-ha.

Recommended recording:
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC5186507

Berlioz Harold in Italy

Berlioz’s orchestrations were a huge influence on Elgar, who loved the Frenchman’s music – he was once reported to have been ‘trembling all over’ on hearing the Symphonie fantastique. Harold in Italy, a work for viola and orchestra in which the soloist describes the hero’s moods as he travels from Italian scene to scene, contains Elgarian whisperings, from sighing falls to full orchestra scamperings – even the way Berlioz scores his strings had a deep impact on the English composer. No doubt Elgar called Harold to mind as he sketched the sixth movement of the Enigma Variations, ‘Ysobel’, a witty tribute to an amateur viola-playing friend.

Recommended recording:
Antoine Tamestit (viola); London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
LSO Live LSO0760

German The Seasons

Edward German was a close friend of Elgar and shared his enthusiasm for walking, cycling and fishing. Into the great outdoors is exactly where we head in the Shropshire-born composer’s orchestral suite The Seasons, written for the Norwich Festival in 1899. All begins with lightness of step and sun in the sky as we welcome ‘Spring’, the most Elgar-like of the four movements. ‘Summer’ has a certain rusticity to it before ‘Autumn’ plunges us into mists and wistfulness. ‘Winter’, meanwhile, reminds that this is also a season of chilly gloom, before eventually lightening its soul as, in a distinctly Slav manner, Christmas hones into view.

Recommended recording:
RTE Concert Orchestra/Andrew Penny
Marco Polo: 8.223695

Delius Norwegian Suite

Comprising four movements with a couple of one-minute ‘melodramas’, Delius’s Norwegian Suite was originally conceived as incidental music for a play, Folkeraadet (People’s Parliament), a satirical comedy on the Norwegian parliamentary system. Written just four years after the Enigma Variations, this is early Delius at his most bucolic and playful, with Elgar’s pastoral language peppering the textures. There are touches of Edvard Grieg, too – Delius had just married the Norwegian painter Jelka Rosen after fleeing the clutches of his Paris mistress, Princesse de Cystria, so was clearly in a contented Nordic frame of mind.

Recommended recording:
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA5131

Parry Lady Radnor’s Suite

Elgar wasn’t the only composer to write music for and about his friends. In 1894, Hubert Parry’s close friend Lady Helen Matilda Radnor commissioned him to write a work for her 72-piece all-female orchestra, made up of fellow ladies of birth who had a high level of musical training – not least her own daugher Wilma, who played the violin in the ensemble. Parry duly conjured up a six-movement suite of courtly dances inspired by the countess’s stately credentials, the premiere of which she conducted at St James Hall in London. Lady Radnor’s band – as the orchestra was nicknamed – gave regular performances throughout the First World War, at which their conductor was known to wear her tiara backwards, so that the audience could better see it while she was on the podium.

Recommended recording:
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
Nimbus NI5068

Britten: Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge

While stylistically a generation or so onward from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Britten’s 1937 breakthrough work for string orchestra is a character sketch of his teacher, in much the same way Elgar pays homage to his chums. Each movement, based loosely on the theme of the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet, represents aspects of Bridge’s personality, from his humour in the skittish ‘Aria Italiana’ to his sympathy in the ‘Funeral March’ and sense of tradition in the ‘Bourée’. Along the way, Britten makes passing references to Rossini, Stravinsky and Ravel, before the work ends with a helter-skelter fugue and, at last, Bridge’s theme itself which Britten only hints at in the introduction.

Recommended recording:
London Symphony Orchestra String Ensemble/Roman Simovic
London Symphony Orchestra Live LSO0792

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