Elgar: Enigma Variations; In the South (Alassio); Introduction and Allegro

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Enigma Variations; In the South (Alassio); Introduction and Allegro
PERFORMER: SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: 93.191

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Roger Norrington’s recordings often stir up very mixed feelings, and this is no exception. None of these performances is of the kind I would recommend for anyone’s library, yet they should be heard. Listeners who prize the ‘nobilmente’ quality in Elgar will be disappointed. So, too, will those who look for the complex, acutely sensitive Schumannesque Romantic behind the carefully cultivated public mask. But although Elgar connected the ‘Enigma’ theme with ‘the loneliness of the artist’, it’s easy to forget how many of the subsequent variations are conceived in playful, even affectionately mocking terms. Norrington captures the humour, the mercurial changes in mood and shading very plausibly. While one may miss the ripe, luxurious sound of a modern string section, the clarity that emerges here has a lot to tell us about Elgar’s textures – in this, one may well be reminded of Elgar’s own recordings.

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If Alassio doesn’t soar into life at first, the hushed slower sections reveal plenty, and the march section Elgar called ‘relentless and domineering’ is, for once, truly incisive. The Introduction and Allegro comes across least well: it needs lyrical tenderness and poetry as well as verve and intellectual focus. Sir Colin Davis and the LSO are marvellous here. Otherwise, among modern interpreters Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé come closest to capturing the range of character in Elgar. But this new disc still has plenty to tell Elgarians about Elgar. Stephen Johnson