Cockaigne (In London Town) Concert Overture, Op.40
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Pomp and Circumstance Marches:
No.1 in D
No.2 in A minor
No.3 in C minor
No.4 in G
No.5 in C
BBC Symphony Orchestra [Cockaigne]
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra [Enigma; Marches 1 & 2]
London Symphony Orchestra [Marches 3-5]
Sir Edward Elgar
Recorded between 1926-1933 in London Abbey Road Studio No.1, Queens Hall, and Kingsway Hall
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: January 2006
CD No: NAXOS HISTORICAL
Duration: 68 minutes
Naxos has also provided an equally fascinating bonus track which lets us hear the last part of the Cockaigne Overture in stereo – yes, real stereo, not the mere tricking about with frequencies to left and right which was popular in the 1960s. Naxos refers to this track as “accidental stereo” and in a thorough accompanying essay Mark Obert-Thorn, the skilful supervisor of all these excellent transfers, explains that in the days of 78 rpm recording, it was standard practice to transfer the takes to two cutting lathes simultaneously so that in the event of any fault (overloading of volume levels being one of the most common) there would always be a safety copy. Normally the feed would be to two cutting lathes from a single microphone but at this 1933 Abbey Road Studios recording, it appears that the engineers rigged two separate microphones above the orchestra – one for each lathe. The safety copy of the final side of the Cockaigne Overture has been preserved and by running both copies simultaneously and panning one microphone to the left and the other to the right, it was possible to create a genuine, and in this case very convincing, stereo image. This is an admirable experiment. To understand the success of this venture: start listening to the mono version of the Overture exactly nine minutes into track 1 then, after a few bars, select track 22 which begins at the identical point but is in stereo. The difference, especially if listened to on headphones, is staggering.
The music-making is exciting too. It is intriguing to hear the composer interpreting his own music. Interestingly, his tempos do not usually differ greatly from those adopted by conductors skilled in this field. Tempos in Enigma Variations, for example, seem not too far removed from those of Sir Adrian Boult. There is one consistent feature that underlines the 80-year-old provenance of this performance however: the frequent use of portamento in the violins as they move from one melodic phrase to the next. The string melody at the very start of the Enigma theme is a case in point – 15 seconds in, it becomes clear that this is part of the style, by 44 seconds one realises that this sweetening effect was a tradition of orchestral playing early in the 20th-century. One more personal feature of Elgar’s conducting is his attention to dynamics. Because of technical limitations, the climaxes inevitably lack power but the composer always ensures that pianissimo music is breathlessly quiet.
Maybe in the old days the surface noise might have made this a problem when playing back the records, but in this performance Elgar makes no compromise at all. Mark Obert-Thorn reduces background noise to an acceptable level without completely suppressing it (total noise suppression is used by some refurbishers – nearly always to the detriment of the music). Under the composer’s supervision the opening of ‘Nimrod’ emerges with great gentility, and in the ‘Romanza’ – representing Lady Mary Lygon – the hushed clarinet over strings is magical.
Surprisingly, the 1933 recording of Cockaigne does not provide much more detail than the 1926 Enigma. It is unfortunate that the timpani (usually a weak feature of recordings of this period) are so modest in their important part at the end of Cockaigne (only in Enigma’s ‘Troyte’ do they really emerge convincingly). Nevertheless, apart from a muddy lower middle area where the bassoons, violas, cellos and timpani tend to coagulate, the orchestral sound is more than listenable. This muddiness is far less evident in the stereo version of the Overture’s last five minutes.
The Marches are notable for Elgar’s generally swift speeds. The booklet note points out that there is evidence to show that these are truly the composer’s chosen tempos and they were not affected by the limitations of side-length. Only in the famous trio of No.1 (“Land of Hope and Glory”) does the composer/conductor permit himself a certain amount of expansiveness. In all the other marches he tends to drive the music forward very firmly, particularly so in Number 4. Here the trio section is no less grand in character than that of No.1 but Elgar still moves forward as urgently as in the main section of the March.
The sound quality of the marches is similar to that of the Enigma, the first four having been recorded around the same time (1926/7) in the Queen’s Hall. No.5 was made in 1930 (the only recording on the disc to have been made in Kingsway Hall). This is more resonant but not much clearer.
Overall this is an exciting disc and the sound exceeds my expectations, even the high percussion is reasonably audible. Altogether an exemplary archive refurbishment.