Elgar: Enigma Variations; In the South (Alassio); Serenade for Strings

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Enigma Variations; In the South (Alassio); Serenade for Strings
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/ Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 168

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These three live performances from 2007 further burnish Andrew Davis’s credentials as an Elgar conductor. One feature of the recording is the unusual strength of the bass, adding richness and weight to the lower lines and making one more aware of Elgar’s contrapuntal mastery.

While it also makes parts of the Enigma Variations sound a little too comfortable, too cushioned, it also helps to bring out the really bravura timpani playing in ‘G.R.S.’ (the ‘bulldog Dan’ variation). Moreover, Davis achieves a ‘Nimrod’ of great warmth and dignity, then later a wanly desolate seascape in the Variation 13 ‘Romanza’, and a finale of tremendous cumulative power.

The In the South is bold, if a mite beefy, and Davis is not as successful as some conductors (Boult, say, or Solti) in concealing the work’s essentially episodic construction.

In the matter of the Enigma, competition is legion and strong. One of the other benchmarks is Andrew Davis’s own, earlier version for Warner, with the BBC Symphony, which is a superb interpretation with demonstration-class sound.

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Excellent though the new account is, I don’t think it quite comes up to that same standard. The disc is, however, safely recommendable as a crop of three fine interpretations, that also has the excitement of public performance, by a conductor who loves this repertoire and knows it like the back of his hand. Calum MacDonald