Elgar: Enigma Variations (CD review)

Also, In the South; Introduction and Allegro. Roger Norrington, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Hanssler Classics CD 93.191.

A lot of Americans will probably forever know English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) as that guy who wrote the graduation march. He definitely got the most from his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, but it may have been at the expense of people neglecting his main body of work, like his other Pomp and Circumstance marches, his two symphonies, his violin concerto, his cello concerto, and the three pieces of music on the present disc. Certainly, British conductor Sir Roger Norrington isn't about to let people forget him, though.

The concert overture In the South (Allasio), Op. 50, which Elgar premiered in 1904, makes a suitable opening number with its big, bold statements along the lines of Richard Strauss's Don Juan from a decade or so earlier. Nevertheless, Elgar claimed the music represented a holiday he spent in Italy. That may be so, but it sounds more heroic than it does balmy, sunny, or Italian. At any rate, Norrington and his Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra play up the Strauss angle pretty thoroughly, which in this case is not a bad thing to do.

Next, we get Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra, Op. 47, premiered in 1905. The intriguing thing here is the interaction between the quartet and the orchestra, with Norrington taking his time with it and letting it play out in a leisurely yet cogent manner. It is interesting that Norrington made a splash some years ago with his London Classical Players, a period-instruments group that would often move along at quite zippy speeds. However, in the Introduction and Allegro, as I say, Norrington seems entirely relaxed and easygoing. It's an enjoyable approach.

Of the works on the disc, the Enigma Variations are no doubt the most well known. Premiered in 1899, it was Elgar's first really big success. These fourteen Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, began life as an improvisation that Elgar continued to toy with, bringing in all sorts of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Norrington seems less interested in the esoteric significance of the movements as he does simply in making each one of them as charming as possible. Here, he succeeds well, making this Enigma set one of the most comfortable, picturesque, colorful, and entertaining you'll find. Perhaps they're not in the same exalted league as the classic accounts by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) or Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), but at least they come close.

Hanssler Classics recorded two of the works in live performances in Liederhalle Stuttgart, 2007 and 2010, and the other one (Introduction and Allegro) in Funkstudio des SWR in 2010. There is no question the live performances sound live: They appear moderately miked, slightly veiled, and very spacious. They also have an unfortunate eruption of applause at the end of each of them, disturbing one's final appreciation. Those concerns aside, the sound is fine, with plenty of dynamic punch in addition to the ambient bloom of the acoustic. Although ultimate transparency suffers, to be sure, in favor of a more natural sonic environment, the compromise seems reasonable. Of the three recordings, the Enigma Variations come up best, with the cleanest textures and some especially realistic timpani whacks.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa