Elgar: Enigma Variations; In the South; Introduction and Allegro; Sospiri

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Enigma Variations; In the South; Introduction and Allegro; Sospiri
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 463 265-2
Elgar brings out the best in orchestras. The Viennese players clearly relish the Straussian swagger of the concert overture In the South; the viola soloist in the ‘Canto popolare’ of the overture and the cellist in the ‘BGN’ variation of the Enigma are touchingly expressive; the strings dig joyfully into the Introduction and Allegro, caress the phrases of Sospiri, and in the Enigma despatch the swirling scale figures of ‘Troyte’ and the finale with unmatchable precision.

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But do the orchestra and Gardiner bring out the best in Elgar? After the thrilling start of In the South, the brakes go on for the secondary themes, and especially for the powerful ‘Roman’ episode, so that the work’s overall momentum is dissipated. The theme of the Enigma begins very slowly, then puts on a spurt in the middle; the same (unmarked) contrast distorts the flow of ‘BGN’. And in ‘Nimrod’ and the Romanza, slow tempi seem to be a substitute for more subtle ways of conveying deeply felt emotion.

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Among the many competing versions of the Variations, Adrian Boult’s classic 1970 recording (EMI) and Norman Del Mar’s finely detailed 1975 account (DG) are both highly recommendable; Andrew Davis’s broadly conceived 1991 interpretation, in first-rate sound and with a fine Introduction and Allegro among the couplings, is a real bargain on Warner Apex. But a previous Vienna Philharmonic Enigma, recorded live in 1996 under Georg Solti, is supremely successful in conveying the full range of Elgar’s emotions, including the reticence in which he clothed his deepest feelings. Anthony Burton