Slatkin’s Elgar

0 of 5 stars

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 *
Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Salut d’amour, Op.12 **
Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61 **

Janos Starker (cello)

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Philharmonia Orchestra *
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra **
Leonard Slatkin

Recording information not included in RCA’s documentation

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: July 2004
82876 60389 2 (4 CDs)
Duration: 4 hours 45 minutes

This release is part of RCA’s “Complete Collections” series, but doesn’t live up to its billing. Leonard Slatkin has yet to record several significant Elgar pieces (Falstaff, Introduction and Allegro, Gerontius, Apostles, etc., or Anthony Payne’s ‘Elgar 3’). But while these are hopefully projects ‘for the future’, this box is even less than ‘complete’ for Slatkin’s RCA recording of The Kingdom (plus Elgar’s transcriptions of Bach and Handel) isn’t included! In addition, no specific recording dates and locations are stated in the booklet, which contains for a note a rather circumspect multi-lingual Elgar overview. Nor are the producers (most of the recordings here are Andrew Keener’s) and engineers listed, and such footnotes as Keener’s on the use of the organ in the finale of Symphony No.2, or Slatkin’s own on Enigma, are not reprinted from the original booklets. The London Philharmonic is credited with the Cello Concerto; it is, in fact, the Philharmonia Orchestra (from a CD that included Janos Starker playing Walton’s concerto and some Delius).

Still, at least the transfers here are faithful to the original releases, and if anything they are slightly more open. (One is rather wary of RCA transfers following some of the “Artistes et Répertoires” issues, which were markedly poor on their own terms and inferior to earlier transfers of the same material. But that’s another story…).

Leonard Slatkin’s sympathy for English music hardly needs any introduction. These are very fine Elgar performances, ones to recommend and return to. In the South sweeps along with animation, the moonlit nocturne is magically distilled, and there is throughout an involving flow that convincingly portrays the composer’s impulsiveness. This spills over into Symphony No.1, given with trenchancy and clarity, symphonic progress given priority over fantasy. The slow movement, spaciously conceived, is very moving, not least in the dynamic recesses of the final measures.

Pinchas Zukerman’s hushed and confidential first entry in the Violin Concerto marks his particular affinity with the work; a more seasoned account than his first version (with Barenboim) maybe, one more knowing, but eloquent and flexible nonetheless. Salut d’amour could have done with less application of ‘period’ gestures.

For my money, Janos Starker has made a near-ideal version of the Cello Concerto – no swooning, treacly speeds or false sentimentality. Sadly, there’s a production fault to report that wasn’t present on the original issue, a ticking that begins just before the third movement that lasts about 35 seconds into it. Starker’s is a deeply impressive performance, and Slatkin reveals detail rarely heard, not least a lower string line in the first movement, 6’12”-6’17”.

There’s a lively and soulful account of Froissart, a rather noisy one (at times) of Cockaigne, and a wonderful Enigma, deeply felt and thoughtful, subtly coloured and impeccably detailed that looks into the work’s darker corners … now, if RCA had reprinted the conductor’s note you’d know where he was coming from … including a convincingly spacious ‘Nimrod’ (if not quite in Bernstein territory) and an emotional identification with the work that sweeps all before it.

The Second Symphony here has all the flavour of the complex and intangible masterpiece that it is, touched by outer circumstance and inner regret, which rages with fire and recollects hazily. The Serenade finds the LPO’s strings responding with unanimity, bloom and eloquence.

A fine set, then, one that sounds well and collects thoroughly valid and integrated interpretations, ones sympathetic, ample, thought-through, and appreciative of Elgar’s grand designs and secretive undercurrents. This box will now sit next to the original releases – the former offering airier sonics and the latter’s booklets giving information and insights that the serious collector appreciates and that first-time buyers are now denied.

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