Elgar: Enigma Variations (HDCD review)

Also, Vaughan Williams: The Wasps; Fantasia on Greensleeves. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-129.

It seems a shame that most Americans probably know English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) only for his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, and then only because so many people hear it played during graduation ceremonies across the country. But he wrote quite a lot of other orchestral material, too: marches, symphonies, concertos, and the like. This new recording from Reference Recordings gives us one of his other well-known works, the Enigma Variations, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps suite and the Fantasia on “Greensleeves.” Although one can certainly find a multitude of other available recordings of these pieces, few of them combine the expert performances and audiophile sound we find here.

The program begins with The Wasps, subtitled Aristophanic Suite, by English composer and folklorist Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Yeah, the first thing I did when I heard this music years ago was look up “Aristophanic.” Seems the word wasn’t as hard as it sounded; it simply refers to Aristophanes, the ancient Greek satirist who liked to skewer Greek society. The Wasps was Vaughan Williams’s first stage work, and it includes a number of traditional British folk tunes, which Maestro Michael Stern and his Kansas City Symphony play with high good spirits. It’s fun stuff, especially the overture, which begins with sounds of a swarm of wasps.

Next, we find the Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” a coupling by Ralph Greaves of two of Vaughan Williams’s arrangements of the famous ballad. The “Greensleeves” melody has been around seemingly forever, a booklet note suggestig that the first mention of it in print occurred as far back as the sixteenth century. It undoubtedly predates that time period considerably. Today, listeners probably know Vaughan Williams’s orchestral arrangements of the tune as well as any version it. Stern takes his time to get the full measure of the work, yet he never lags or dawdles. It’s quite beautiful.

The final piece on the disc is the Enigma Variations, Op. 36, by English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Elgar premiered it in 1899, making it his first big success. He began these fourteen variations by writing an improvisation and then continued to toy with it, bringing into the work all kinds of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Stern plays each of the movements fairly straight, attempting to make each one of them as entertaining as he can. Perhaps Stern’s interpretation is not quite in the same exalted league as the classic accounts by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) or Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), but it’s a very fine reading just the same.

Maestro Stern brings out all the color, picturesqueness, and delight the Enigma Variations have to offer. Moreover, there is a serious air of mystery around the music. The conductor also seems to delight in the score’s contrasts, emphasizing the composer’s lyrical charm, brawny athleticism, and stately, aristocratic grace.

The Reference Recordings team of producers and engineers, which includes producer David Frost, recording engineer Keith Johnson, and executive producers Tam Henderson and Marcia Martin, recorded the HDCD at the Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, in May of 2011. As always, the folks at Reference Recordings trade off a little something in the way of ultimate transparency in favor of a more lifelike presentation. You are very much in the audience for this one, sitting in the auditiorium. They do the miking at a reasonable distance, not too close, not too far away, capturing a smooth, warm response, with a pleasant hall resonance. One senses an excellent depth, air, and dimensionality to the sound, the bass deep and taut, the highs well extended. Just as important, there’s a wide dynamic range and a strong impact involved. Indeed, the range is so wide that much of the music may appear at times too low in volume, encouraging you to turn up the gain, which might not be the best idea when the loudest passages come around. Anyway, you’ll find a comfortable setting with a little fiddling of the dials and soon settle in to a most-realistic listening experience.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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 Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. 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 tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa