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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa