Elgar: Enigma Variations; Rehearsal Documentary (including interview with Leonard Bernstein)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: ICA Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Enigma Variations; Rehearsal Documentary
WORKS: Enigma Variations
PERFORMER: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein


It’s worth watching the rehearsal before the performance, as it gives a good idea of Bernstein’s approach to Elgar’s (see below) Enigma Variations. He wants the theme to be played molto vibrato, and it’s very slow, but he asks the players to listen to each other, so that they are aware of the orchestral balance and ensemble. Fast movements tend to be very fast, which raises a few eyebrows among the musicians, and there’s a little friction with the trumpet section at one point, but he does get the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which he had never conducted before, to respond to his intense direction. ‘Nimrod’ is famously slow, hovering at around half speed, but the split screen shows how Bernstein manages to create and hold the tension, rarely losing the line.

In the performance the theme is still stately but has more flexibility and flow, as does ‘Nimrod’, but the enormous slowing-down to get into it destroys the end of the previous variation. It’s the poised music that comes off best, with both ‘Ysobel’ and ‘Dorabella’ exuding charm and having smiles on their faces. The sound is good for its time and the camera-work isn’t over fussy – it
homes in on relevant areas of the orchestra, without becoming too intrusive in close-up. Even Bernstein is treated as part of the overall picture on the whole, and this is an accurate record of the concert. Whether the extremes of Bernstein’s interpretation add up to an Enigma Variations you’d want to watch frequently is another matter.


Martin Cotton