In the South (Alassio) Concert Overture, Op.50
Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36 (Enigma)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
CD No: DG 463 265-2 Duration: Reviewed: May 2002
Elgar with a new slant - Gardiner and the VPO (DG)
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
It is often said that English music does not travel well. It should therefore be remembered that Elgars early success was in Germany and that his music has been likened (if superficially) to Richard Strauss. (Elgars true German counterpart is Robert Schumann for that revelation I am grateful to Anthony Payne.) Elgars most Straussian piece is In the South, written in Alassio on the Italian Riviera in 1903. The exuberant opening is rather similar to Strausss Don Juan. There follows descriptive episodes combative, moonlit and triumphant.
The Vienna Philharmonic played Introduction and Allegro at a pre-war Salzburg Festival concert under Sir Adrian Boult, one of Elgars finest interpreters. This melodious and muscular work is a display of masterly writing for strings, vividly contrasting quartet and orchestra. Sospiri is a miniature of haunting beauty.
Enigma Variations a masterpiece of graphic characterisation and richly eloquent musical ideas has attracted many famous non-British conductors including Toscanini, Monteux, Jochum, Bernstein, Sinopoli and Solti (each with a recording, Solti twice). Each variation is a portrait of a friend save the final one, Elgar himself; his wife is portrayed in the first variation.
This CDs attraction is not primarily the music; rather it is having it played by the Vienna Philharmonic (although it wasnt that long ago that the VPO recorded Enigma with Solti DECCA 452 853-2). Usually I find Gardiners work rather literal and lacking charm. However, he has stimulated the VPO to playing that is both electrifying and sympathetic. This music emerges newly discovered, Gardiner being affectionate, observant and animated, though inflexible in the opening measures of In the South, hard-driven in the intense fugal writing at the heart of a rather lean Introduction and Allegro, and, throughout, there is some sticky rubato.
The sound is spacious and naturally balanced with the famed acoustic of the Musikvereins Grosser Saal well conveyed without the need to add reverberation or place the orchestra distantly. Elgars scoring is complex filigree detail reaches the ear without hindrance. The VPOs timbre is consistently attractive even fortissimo passages are bracing without being harsh, and the VPOs sweet and warm string tone is faithfully captured at all dynamics, with plenty of bloom in Sospiri.
If one hesitates to offer first choice status to any of these performances, Gardiners unexpectedly involving and individual traversals are impressive certainly a CD for anyone knowing the music and wanting a fresh perspective.