Elgar: Enigma Variations (CD review)

Also, In the South; Introduction and Allegro for Strings; Sospiri. John Eliot Gardiner, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 463 265-2.

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
Yes, Gardiner displays his own merits, particularly in the lovely Sospiri, where the strings, harp, and organ so delicately intertwine. As for the centerpiece of the collection, the Enigma Variations, well, Gardiner does try to differentiate each of the themes well enough that whatever puzzles may be there a person might find clearly delineated. You'll recall that Elgar premiered the work in 1899, and it was his first big success. He began his fourteen variations by writing an improvisation and then continued to toy with each one, bringing into the work all kinds of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Gardiner adds his own personal insights into these variations, successfully integrating them into some kind of whole rather than sounding like a collection of disparate items.

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:

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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.

Contact Information

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa