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
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: DG 463 265-2
It is often said that English music does not travel well. It should therefore be remembered that Elgar’s early success was in Germany and that his music has been likened (if superficially) to Richard Strauss. (Elgar’s true German counterpart is Robert Schumann – for that revelation I am grateful to Anthony Payne.) Elgar’s most Straussian piece is In the South, written in Alassio on the Italian Riviera in 1903. The exuberant opening is rather similar to Strauss’s 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 Elgar’s 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 CD’s attraction is not primarily the music; rather it is having it played by the Vienna Philharmonic (although it wasn’t that long ago that the VPO recorded ’Enigma’ with Solti – DECCA 452 853-2). Usually I find Gardiner’s 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 Musikverein’s Grosser Saal well conveyed without the need to add reverberation or place the orchestra distantly. Elgar’s scoring is complex – filigree detail reaches the ear without hindrance. The VPO’s timbre is consistently attractive – even fortissimo passages are bracing without being harsh, and the VPO’s 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, Gardiner’s unexpectedly involving and individual traversals are impressive – certainly a CD for anyone knowing the music and wanting a fresh perspective.