Elgar/Debussy

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar/Debussy
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Enigma Variations; Images
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: SK 53284 DDD
It may not last, but it does seem as if Europe is waking up to Elgar. American orchestras were quicker to take to him, but outside the UK he has not really been accepted as part of the European mainstream. The Cello Concerto gets programmed from time to time, and the Introduction and Allegro and Serenade are in the repertoire of most string orchestras. But the last year has also seen recordings of the Violin Concerto from Bavaria with a Japanese soloist (the first-choice version on Radio 3’s Building a Library last year), In the South from Milan, the Introduction and Allegro from Bavaria and Berlin; and now the Berlin Philharmonic has for the first time recorded Elgar’s turn-of-the-century orchestral masterpiece, the Enigma Variations.

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This Sony disc is taken from concert performances in November 1992. It was not the Berliners’ first encounter with the piece (Leonard Slatkin had conducted it a few years earlier), but the Variations are a test for any orchestra, however grand, and the BPO players pass with flying colours. This is not to say that everything about the performance is ideal: the theme is marked ‘Andante’, which to me suggests something more flowing and less lachrymose than Levine seems to want. The same air of portentousness hangs over the first variation (representing Elgar’s wife, Alice), whereas the delightful ‘Dorabella’ is a bit rushed for my taste. And if there’s an organ in the finale, I can’t hear it (to be fair, it is marked ‘ad lib’ in the score). But there is much more to enjoy in the dashing brilliance of a live performance; Levine is not one for undernourished sound, and every instrumental line comes through clearly. A particularly nice touch is the way Levine underlines Elgar’s viola joke by taking ‘Ysobel’ at a slow tempo and making the little exercise sound so deliberate. For those who fancy this strange but original coupling, I can also recommend the Debussy Images recorded at the same concerts; again the approach is robust rather than impressionistic, but it’s a good performance.

My eagerness to hear Simon Rattle’s account of Enigma and Falstaffwas scarcely any less keen than to hear the Berlin Philharmonic’s Elgar. Ratde has not conducted that much Elgar – his only previous record was an excellent Gerontius about seven years ago. Well, I’m pleased to report that his new EMI Enigma is a triumph: among the most moving, thrilling and intensely musical accounts of the score I’ve heard, and one of the finest recordings yet from Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. The way the lower strings stroke their accompaniment in the opening bars suggests a very loving approach, and this is apparent throughout. Nimrod is, as always, considerably slower than Elgar’s own recording (4:21 mins as compared with 2:52 mins), but the CBSO strings and wind do at least move together at the climax; they also get all the accents right in the fast and furious ‘Troyte’. Elsewhere Rattle’s phrasing is always beautifully refined, his dynamic contrasts well-judged, lifting the performance above the Berlin disc, into the outstanding category.

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Rattle is no less well attuned to the very different world of Faktaff. Again, there is an element of self-portrait in Elgar’s music: in 1913, he felt the world (and its music) was passing him by, just as Shakespeare’s larger-than-life knight is rejected by the new King at the end of Henry IV Part II- ‘I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers; How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!’. Ratde misses no opportunity to bring out the fun and lightness of touch in Elgar’s affectionate character study. But he also captures to perfection the terrible disappointment of the concluding pages and the equivocal ending. The CBSO strings excel themselves throughout, and also bring the right tone of gravitas to the seldom-played Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid.