Elgar: Enigma Variations; plus drama-documentary

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: BBC Opus Arte
WORKS: Enigma Variations; plus drama-documentary
PERFORMER: BBC SO/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: OA 0917 D

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The two parts of this DVD are self-contained – you can easily bypass the documentary if you just want to see a straight-down-the-middle performance of the Variations by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.

This is shot appropriately in Elgar’s hometown in Worcester Cathedral; here the production style is almost entirely gimmick-free, and the sound gives a good impression of the acoustic of the building, though there is sometimes a tendency for certain sections of the orchestra to be spotlit. This only becomes really distracting in the 11th Variation, Elgar’s portrait of Sinclair’s bulldog, where the bass instruments suddenly leap out at you.

Andrew Davis presents the documentary in an engaging style, giving an overview of the variations, as well as homing in on several of them. There’s a mixture of musical analysis at an easily understandable level, some old film footage, some reconstruction with actors and, what I found irritating, an effort to draw analogies with the past using modern situations.

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So it’s not enough just to play the lilting Tenth Variation to show Dorabella’s love of dancing: we have to see a contemporary trio cavorting on skates in a park. But there’s a lot of information presented in an unassuming way, and, for anyone coming to this masterpiece for the first time, it’s a good way in. Martin Cotton