Martyn Brabbins conducts Elgar – In the South & Enigma Variations, and other pieces [BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Hyperion]

5 of 5 stars

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Carillon, Op.75
Une voix dans le désert, Op.77
Le drapeau begle, Op.79
Pleading, Op.48

Florence Daguerre de Hureaux (narrator); Kate Royal (soprano) & Yann Ghiro (clarinet)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded 9 & 10 September 2015 in City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2017
Duration: 82 minutes



This outstanding Elgar release opens with a bracing account of In the South, Martyn Brabbins securing sweep and incisiveness, grandeur too, in an accommodating reading bejewelled with detail, sonority and warmth; the music glows, expands, thrills, sooths and is suspenseful, and enjoys a particularly lovely viola solo from Scott Dickinson.

Brabbins’s spacious conducting of Enigma Variations is altogether special, a devoted accomplishment of the most-beguiling consideration, all placed to perfection and interwoven so that everything belongs; furthermore, articulations, dynamics, weightings and colourings are carefully considered, the music duly lives and breathes with expressive import and these performers’ affection and concern for the music, an imperishable masterpiece, is tangible, potent and vividly communicative.

All the essentials are in place, not least the use of antiphonal violins (the seconds very much the equal of the firsts, with double basses placed to the left), and ‘Nimrod’ is deeply contemplative – the German word Innigkeit (“poignant intimacy of feeling”) seems apt, for the music sends shivers down the spine – and, during it, at 1’52, there is an profoundly affecting (if not written) longer-held oboe note (there’s a story here involving the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Léon Goossens and the conducting composer) and you’ll also find this, for me, significant extra second on the LPO versions under Haitink and Slatkin, for examples.

Brabbins’s is an account of Enigma that I am totally smitten with (as I am, for example, by the recordings from Previn’s LSO, and Groves in Liverpool, and others of course), and Hyperion’s sound quality is superb in its naturalness and focus, with bass-drum rolls and the organ (including pedal notes) especially well-captured, the latter of tummy-wobbling import. Come the work’s conclusion, an apotheosis, we have reached a musical and emotional high. Brabbins gets to the heart of the score without contrivance or micro-managing.

What follows is intriguing, three pieces for narrator and orchestra written by Elgar during World War One, beginning with Carillon, incorporating a text by the Belgian writer Émile Cammaerts, a collaboration kick-started by the Germans invading neutral Belgium, and composed by Elgar for inclusion in King Albert’s Book, a show of solidarity with the Belgian people. Carillon is an engaging piece and it can be done without the words (Boult recorded it thus), but it’s good to hear the original concept and Florence Daguerre de Hureaux is a vibrant speaker. As she is on A Voice in the Wilderness (1916) and The Belgian Flag (1917), both also using Cammaerts’s French prose. The former is reserved if touching and also requires a soprano, here the radiant Kate Royal, while The Belgian Flag involves greater pomp. Texts and translations are included in the booklet.

Finally, back to 1908 for Elgar’s setting of Arthur L. Salmon’s poem Pleading, first for voice and piano, then in an unpublished version that was taken as an orchestral accompaniment, but it seems the composer’s intention was that the vocal line should be taken instrumentally; there are several options, here is the one for clarinet with Yann Ghiro (BBCSSO principal) tenderly essaying the ‘vocal’ line. Whatever the medium, Pleading could only be by Elgar. His three Symphonies from Brabbins, perchance?

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