Elgar: Enigma Variations; Serenade for Strings; Cockaigne Overture; Chanson de matin

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Enigma Variations; Serenade for Strings; Cockaigne Overture; Chanson de matin
PERFORMER: Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
The Hallé’s pride in its relationship with its new music director Mark Elder is understandable. Not only does the orchestra sound more together, more disciplined; there’s a new elegance and confidence in the playing, and even something of the Romantic warmth of the Barbirolli era. Thomas Beecham used to quip that Barbirolli made the Hallé into ‘the finest chamber orchestra in the country’, and listening to the clarinet-strings-muted brass exchanges in the coda of the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony, or to the woodwind exchanges at the start of Nielsen’s Fifth, it’s tempting to conclude that something of that spirit has returned too. But let’s not get carried away – how recommendable are these performances in repertoire where there’s no lack of good competition? The answer is, they all hold up well, and at least one – the Enigma Variations – is outstanding.


The first movement of Nielsen’s Fifth is pretty remarkable, especially in that pregnant opening and in the desolate clarinet solo at the close – only the apocalyptic climax (with the famous crazed side-drum improvisation) falls short of the target. The finale, too, is short on demonic energy. My advice is to hang on for the new Vänskä (BIS) which, if it’s anything like his 1998 Glasgow concert performance, should outstrip all rivals. Until then Blomstedt (Decca) is more generally successful. The Elder/Nicholson version of the Flute Concerto, however, is never less than fine, and often very touching.


As, too, is the Elgar First Symphony. Elder rightly makes the slow movement the heart of the work, and as early as the lead-in from the preceding scherzo one senses something special is on the way. I only wish Elder could have recaptured something of that straining-at-the-leash, yearning-to-fly quality that Elgar himself brought out so thrillingly – so that’s what all those ‘pushing’ syncopations are about! Similarly, all In the South lacks is the authentic Elgarian exuberance. But Enigma is first class – tenderness, mystery, fun and nobility and much more. It’s less extrovert than Barbirolli, but just as revealing, and better recorded too. All round, very encouraging for the Hallé and its new in-house label.