Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London – on 23 September & 9 December 2005 (Introduction and Allegro) and 6 & 7 January 2007 (Enigma)
CD No: LSO Live LSO0109 Duration: 48 minutes Reviewed: July 2007
Colin Davis Conducts Elgar
Reviewed by Douglas Cooksey
An enticing proposition this, two of the composer's greatest works from one of the finest of Elgarians conducting the orchestra (here on top form) that Elgar once headed up. At bargain price, too, but even so 48 minutes is somewhat meagre measure.
Colin Davis and the LSO have of recorded ‘Enigma’ previously, in the late Sixties. Interestingly, although exposed to Elgar from an early age Sir Colin, writing on the sleeve of that earlier (LP) recording, recalls that as young man he travelled to London to hear “The Dream of Gerontius” and did not care for it. "It was not at all in tune with my intolerant enthusiasms. Then at the instigation of the LSO, I learned the First Symphony, reluctantly at first, but with increasing respect.”
Davis's way with ‘Enigma’ has always been leisurely, clearly savouring Elgar's affectionate portrait of "my friends pictured within", and now viewed from the other end of his career these same friends appear bathed in an almost roseate light. For the most part timings are several seconds longer than that earlier recording and in the case of ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Dorabella’ substantially longer. This has the effect of taking some of the edge off the more rumbustious Variations such as IV ‘William M. Baker – the country squire – and XI, George Robertson Sinclair whose bulldog Dan rather lumbers along.
Perhaps it is not wholly fanciful to suggest that Elgar's portraits of his friends were not entirely uncritical and should not preclude a touch of malice, for instance the parody of David Steuart-Powell's muddled efforts at the piano, Richard Baxter Townshend's ('Townsend' in the LSO's booklet) low voice flying off into 'soprano' timbre, or Dorabella’s stutter. By contrast, as befits a well-bred Edwardian gentleman, the composer's portraits of some of his lady friends are wholly affectionate and generally come off better; in this performance Ysobel (VI) and *** (XIII) – the asterisks referring to Lady Mary Lygon – are both particularly affecting.
Interestingly, possibly because of its being live, the slow ‘Nimrod’ (but nowhere near Bernstein territory) builds superbly and generates a degree of unforced catharsis seldom encountered in studio recordings. Although other readings – notably Barbirolli and Monteux – may offer a more complete exploration of the Variations as a whole, I doubt that anyone will be seriously disappointed by this ‘Enigma’. (The organ option isn't taken in the final bars.)
Less satisfactory is the Introduction and Allegro compiled from two far-apart performances (including different members of the solo quartet!). This is one of the great string pieces and any conductor who is a string-player (which Davis is not) starts with a short head's advantage. For all the heft of the LSO's sound, what this performance crucially lacks is that essentially Elgarian sense of ebb and flow – the so-called 'Welsh' tune is strangely static and dry-eyed for music of such aching nostalgia – or that visceral feeling of bow digging deep into string come the work's closing peroration (rather than red-blooded the final bar's pizzicato is almost decorous). Still, most people will buy the disc for the Variations.
Produced by James Mallinson, the recording is well up to the standard of previous offerings from LSO Live although as a recording venue it would be idle to pretend that the Barbican is the much-missed Kingsway Hall.