Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Recorded 4-6 January 2017 in Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2017
CD No: ORCHID CLASSICS
Duration: 65 minutes
The premise of this release is to couple music by two contemporaneous composers, the American George Whitefield Chadwick (born 1854 in Massachusetts) and Edward Elgar (arriving in England three years later). Chadwick’s ambition was to be internationally recognised as a composer, and although he was successful locally, and also respected as director of the New England Conservatory, worldwide appreciation was denied to him, whereas Elgar was celebrated on a far wider scale; today, Chadwick may be considered a footnote in musical history, Elgar a major presence.
In his booklet note Andrew Constantine goes into greater detail regarding the two men’s relationship (including their meeting in London in 1906) and leads the BBC’s Welsh orchestra in a revealing account of Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches, all four of them taking their inspiration from visual stimuluses. Overall, this is a colourful score, and some may find English-music connections, such as Chadwick anticipating Eric Coates’s light and pictorial style, and there is no doubting that Chadwick is a fine tunesmith and orchestrator. The opening ‘Jubilee’ is exuberant and melodically heartfelt; then ‘Noël’ is a tender evocation (“The gentle snow lies glistening”); ‘Hobgoblin’ is a lively caprice; and ‘A Vagrom Ballad’ (“A tale of tramps and railway flies”) is the most diverse piece, shades of Grieg in places, and always descriptive. The whole work is most persuasively presented by Constantine and BBCNOW, the music making more of an impression than in Neeme Järvi’s Chandos recording, although I am not familiar with those by Howard Hanson and José Serebrier.
Enjoyable though the Chadwick is, it is put into the shade by the perennially fresh and imperishable Enigma Variations, composed by Elgar in 1899 midway through Chadwick’s extended composition of his Sketches (1895-1904, one imagines that his academic duties made composing somewhat ‘part-time’). Constantine, an Englishman with strong American connections (he is music director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and of the Reading Symphony Orchestra), leads an impressive account of Elgar’s masterpiece – deeply-felt (not least ‘Nimrod’), insightful, vividly detailed, expressively glowing – one to shortlist, and as superbly played as it is recorded: I have returned to it several times with undiminished admiration. A perusal of the orchestra’s personnel reveals no organist for the work’s grandiose conclusion (here gloriously expansive); even if the instrument is ad lib it’s an initial disappointment, but an organ is present, gently rumbling at first and then a majestic presence, beautifully balanced with the orchestra.
Produced by Andrew Keener and engineered by Simon Eadon this is a top-notch release from Orchid Classics, and they are also responsible for Martyn Brabbins’s recent Enigma on Hyperion (with BBC Scottish) – and he goes that little bit further than Constantine, enough to swing it if a choice were to be made, but I wouldn’t want to be without either (or others).