Britten & Elgar from Cincinnati

0 of 5 stars

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), Op.34
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi

Recorded 22-23 January 2006 in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: December 2006
CD No: TELARC CD-80660
Duration: 66 minutes

This is not the first time Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide have been coupled on disc; they appeared together on an EMI LP in the late 1970s from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Sir Charles Groves. The works make an intriguing pair of disc-fellows, with Elgar’s portrait-gallery of his friends adding up to what, in the end, is really a self-portrait, while in his ostensibly more objective work Britten shows his young friends round the modern symphony orchestra with an impish schoolboy glee that, in its way, is nearly as revealing.

And it’s this eager-to-please, puppy-like quality that I miss in Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, and much to enjoy; it’s just that their approach is a touch more earnest than the piece warrants. Decca’s recording with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra is that much more vivid, with greater flair and panache in the opening presentations of the theme (introducing the four main sections of the orchestra). The oboe Variation is moulded rather self-consciously in the Cincinnati reading, and the cheeky humour of the one for clarinet, unmistakable in Britten’s recording, seems to elude the players (Järvi, or the recording engineers, play down the tuba’s staccato doubling of the bass line, which is an essential part of the fun). The trombone and tuba ‘spots’ are slower and more portentous than in Britten’s version. Järvi is, though, very good at clarifying the textures in the concluding Fugue.

Järvi seems more at home in the drama of the ‘Sea Interludes’ from “Peter Grimes”, given vivid, atmospheric readings. ‘Dawn’ is remarkably thoughtful, as though fully aware of the tragedy that is to unfold in the opera. ‘Sunday Morning’ is crisp and sparkling, though the cellos’ tone could perhaps have been allowed to bloom more in their lyrical theme later on. A pause after ‘Dawn’ would have been welcome, too. ‘Moonlight’ moves from serenity to unease in a way that prepares for a vivid account of ‘Storm’. The quiet episode towards the end is perhaps a touch too expansive, but the rest crackles with fierce energy, and the concluding cadence is hammered home with stark finality.

Enigma Variations follows after too brief a pause, again. The theme is on the slow side, and Järvi also tends to linger elsewhere – some little hesitations in ‘WN’ are overdone, and the introspection in ‘BGN’ anticipates the following Variation (the one designated with three asterisks) a bit too much. But he never loses sight of the music’s underlying tensions and its overall shape, and the quick sections are full of vitality. The changes from seriousness to levity and back in ‘RPA’ are convincingly handled and ‘Dorabella’ is wonderfully delicate (though the solo viola is somewhat reticent). ‘Nimrod’ blossoms from a really quiet start into a warm, spacious reading free of bombast (incidentally, August Jaeger, the subject here, is re-christened Arthur in the booklet notes). The ‘***’ Variation itself is full of hushed concentration, without quite finding the depths of heartache explored in some performances (and, we are assured in the booklet note, the timpani roll imitating the ship’s engine – which Elgar originally asked to be played with a pair of coins – is performed with real old British pennies!) The finale is full of joyful self-confidence, with the touching re-appearance of ‘CAE’ beautifully judged.

All in all, then, a recommendable disc, but with a more unbuttoned approach to the Young Person’s Guide it would have been even more so.

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