Elgar from America, Volume 1 – Enigma Variations/Toscanini, Cello Concerto/Piatigorsky & Barbirolli, Falstaff/Rodziński [Somm]

3 of 5 stars

Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Cello Concerto in E-minor, Op.85
Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C-minor, Op.68

NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini [Enigma]

Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)

New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli [Cello Concerto]
Artur Rodziński

Enigma Variations recorded 5 November 1949 at Radio City Studio 8H, New York City; Cello Concerto & Falstaff both from Carnegie Hall – Concerto on 10 November 1940, Falstaff 10 October 1943

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2019
Duration: 79 minutes

It doesn’t take much working out that if these three works of Elgar, normally totalling ninety-five minutes on average, are here accommodated on one compact disc (including applause, and with a few minutes to spare regarding full capacity), then something is up. That ‘something’ is Falstaff, for which Artur Rodziński removes 291 bars, akin to about ten minutes.

Lani Spahr, responsible for the wholly excellent transfers and also an informative booklet note, wonders about the reasons for the Falstaff abridgement; maybe made by Rodziński for artistic reasons (or, depending on your point of view, spurious high-handedness) or to fit the tightly-timed radio schedule; with a Respighi transcription of Bach and Brahms’s Second Symphony in the concert, plus announcements and adverts, then the allotted ninety minutes broadcast-time may not have been enough, and if he wished to conduct Falstaff rather than something shorter, then Rodziński was obliged to trim it. The pity is that it’s a really fine performance, about which more anon.

Another factor in it being possible to group these works on a single disc is swift tempos, nowhere more so than in Arturo Toscanini’s conducting of Enigma Variations. It starts well-enough, but some of his speeds are absurdly hasty and with marmoreal expression (Vars. II-V, for example, VIII being another), harrying the music, pressuring the players, and showing little affection for the music let alone insight/imagination into it beyond the notes on the page: ‘Nimrod’ is soulless and crudely climaxed. Just occasionally he yields and expands the phrasing somewhat, such as for Var.XII, in which I assume the cellist is Frank Miller, and during the closing apotheosis, although the final chord is abrupt, which sums up this objective and unsentimental account.

After which the Cello Concerto offers a dignified and quietly passionate reading – in context, following Toscanini, a reassuring tonic. Whereas Enigma is a “first appearance on CD” and Falstaff a “first commercial release”, although new to me, this Piatigorsky/Barbirolli collaboration has presumably been available before. Piatigorsky captures well, and naturally, the music’s privacy and stoicism; flowing tempos convince (although the second movement has some overt moulding and the Finale can be hasty) and the cellist doesn’t swamp his part with intensity (save a bit too much in the Adagio), although he clearly feels the music deeply, and he is sympathetically accompanied by John Barbirolli (then several years away from a knighthood), a seasoned Elgarian of course.

Yet for all the music missing, it is Rodziński’s tailoring of Falstaff that stands out. He has the measure of the score and draws marvellous playing from the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (today the New York Philharmonic), its members relishing their task (I don’t hear the same enjoyment or inspiration from their NBC counterparts). The cuts are easily identified (and Spahr gives rehearsal numbers) yet they are not jagged – and perhaps surprisingly, given their excision would have been the easiest to achieve, the two Interludes remain, eloquently turned. Other than that the Orchestra plays with ardour, vividness and sensitivity in response to Rodziński’s innate conducting, which is as dashing, dramatic, picturesque and tender as required; his Elgar repertoire also embraced Enigma and the Introduction and Allegro. Based on two-thirds of Falstaff, Rodziński suggests that he could have been a great conductor of Elgar’s Second Symphony.

Whatever Volume 2 contains, I look forward to it with curiosity.

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