Elgar: Enigma Variations; Cockaigne; Serenade for Strings

WORKS: Enigma Variations; Cockaigne; Serenade for Strings
PERFORMER: RPO/Thomas Beecham
Looking back to pre-war years you wonder what would have happened to DELIUS’s cause without Beecham’s championship. Elgar and Sibelius enjoyed the advocacy of many conductors but with Delius by comparison it was almost a one-man band. Although Beecham’s pre-war Delius recordings have been reissued many times over the years, his postwar account of A Mass of Life is new to CD and will also be new to a whole generation. The work’s ecstatic pantheism is conveyed with magisterial splendour under Beecham’s direction. There have been only two recordings since, but even if you have either of them, this has special claims. (It also has a short introductory talk by Beecham.) A companion disc from Sony brings us some other Delius he recorded for Columbia in the early days of LP, namely the early tone poem Over the Hills and Far Away, Paris (a glorious performance indeed) and Sea Drift with Bruce Boyce as soloist.


Beecham is not popularly associated with ELGAR, but he did in fact conduct him far more often than one might imagine (on no fewer than 160 occasions apparently) and included Falstaff, the Violin and Cello Concertos, The Dream of Gerontius and both the symphonies in his repertoire. His classic recordings of the Cockaigne Overture, the Serenade for Strings and the Enigma Variations come from 1954 and they, too, have been out of circulation for some time. His Enigma is wonderfully characterised, and among the most thoughtful accounts in its extensive discography. The whole piece always breathes naturally and effortlessly, and is unerring in its pacing. All these Sony transfers are well managed.

I am old enough to have heard Beecham conduct Delius’s Irmelin at Oxford and attended CORTOT’s 1949 recital there. On that occasion his Chopin was distinctly frail and fragile and did not cast quite the same spell as did his pre-war recordings. Indeed for so many he embodied the spirit of Chopin in much the same way as Beecham did Delius. He recorded the F minor Concerto in 1935 at the Abbey Road Studios, and it comes up sounding wonderfully fresh in his hands. It is coupled with the Schumann A minor Concerto of which he made three recordings, all with the same conductor, Landon Ronald – an acoustic set with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and a 1927 version with the LSO. This famous account, with the LPO in 1934, was the standard version, the benchmark as it were, when I was growing up, and though it was soon challenged by a less expensive version from Myra Hess, and superseded technically by Lipatti, Solomon, Lupu, Kovacevich and many others, there is still something quite special about it. There is lyrical warmth, poetic feeling and a wonderful freshness and individuality. Incidentally, the 1937 MYRA HESS account also turns up on Naxos, together with her splendid Carnaval. If anyone was perfectly attuned to the Schumann sensibility, it was she. Again, everything sounds very natural with every detail finely placed. Mark Obert-Thorn gets a very good sound from the shellac originals.

Natural and unaffected are not adjectives that come to mind with SERGIU CELIBIDACHE who has a cult following nowadays. Immediately after the war he spent some years with the Berlin Philharmonic, though most of his subsequent appointments were with radio orchestras with the resources to give him the inordinate rehearsal time he demanded. But now comes an opportunity of hearing what he was like early on in his career. The four-CD set from Music & Arts includes repertoire that we don’t associate with him: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Glière’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano (absurdly split over two discs) with the legendary Erna Berger and Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque. Unfortunately the sound in this set is strident and scrawny, and does little justice to the sheer refinement and sophistication of the sonority we know he commands. The bizarre, bewilderingly egocentric tempi he adopted remain an insuperable obstacle in his later recordings, but it is interesting to note that they are much less in evidence here. Indeed his Brahms Fourth is quite straight and very well played.


One of the great discoveries in postwar England was MAHLER. Although the Second and Ninth symphonies had been available, the appearance of the Fourth with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic enthused music lovers. His singer was Desi Halban, whose timbre was rather heavy, and the present lists offer an opportunity of hearing it with other orchestras and singers. Urania presents him with Irmgard Seefried and the Vienna Philharmonic (there is another Walter recording with her in New York in 1953) while Music & Arts give us the whole of a 1952 Concertgebouw concert with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I remember Egon Wellesz, who often heard Mahler conducting, saying that he had ‘the fire and electricity of Toscanini and the warmth of Bruno Walter’, but it was Walter he thought of as the keeper of the seal. Fifty years on when we have become used to Bernstein, Haitink and Abbado, Walter’s Mahler still carries a special charge and a unique flame that can be discerned in these less than sumptuous but at least serviceable recordings.