I don't know why it so pleasantly surprised me that John Eliot Gardiner handled these perennial English favorites so affectionately, but surprise me it did, and delighted me as well. I suppose I expected the conductor to be more matter-of-fact or more Germanic in his approach, because so many of his previous recordings have been in the German baroque repertoire. Anyway, Gardiner does a splendid job illuminating four of Elgar's early twentieth-century tone poems.
That anyone might call these pieces "tone poems" at all may itself be a misnomer. I doubt that English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) would have described them as such. But certainly they conjure up pictures and feelings beyond their abstract musical values, and especially as the first work on the disc, In the South, sounds so very much like Richard Strauss, the term "tone poem" comes readily to mind and seems appropriate. Whatever, Maestro Gardiner conveys the sweep and grandeur of each piece quite well, perhaps missing out on some of the commanding scope expressed in the performances of Sir Adrian Boult or the ethereal beauty of readings by Sir John Barbirolli, but worth a listen in their own, darker, more introspective way. Needless to say, too, the Vienna Philharmonic sound wonderful, whether or not they're fully experienced in playing English music.
|John Eliot Gardiner|
My only concern with the disc is that the engineers appear to have miked the Vienna Philharmonic rather close and flat. My comparisons to the aforementioned Boult and Barbirolli discs (both on EMI) found the older recordings more transparent and more three dimensional. This is isn't a big fault, as the DG disc, recorded in 1998, at least appears nicely balanced in its frequency response, extremely smooth in its tonal response, and fairly wide ranging throughout. But it is a little disappointing to hear any newer recording sounding less natural than ones made decades earlier.
Of course, who am I kidding? Audiophiles will swear that good analogue recordings from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies beat anything being made today. Maybe so. Maybe so.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: