Vasily Petrenko conducts Elgar – In the South, Serenade for Strings, Enigma Variations [Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; Onyx]

4 of 5 stars

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50*
Serenade in E-minor for Strings, Op.20
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Recorded January & *July 2018 in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2019
CD No: ONYX 4206
Duration: 66 minutes



It was all going along pretty well until the end of Enigma Variations when the organ turns up (marked ad lib, but best to include it). Here it is too loud, dominant and growly, although its deep bass is impressive, distracting from the orchestra and detracting from earlier good things. (There’s no mention of the instrument being dubbed from another location, such as Liverpool Cathedral, although it may be given Ian Tracey is the organist, but I’ll assume Philharmonic Hall has an in-situ organ.) Not that Vasily Petrenko’s view of this imperishable masterpiece is a full-sail winner anyway – individual insights can be offset by matters of factness – and lags behind recent competition from Martyn Brabbins (also with In the South), one of the finest accounts from any era. There is though a lot to like from Liverpool, such as cohesiveness across the whole, if sometimes at the expense of sentiment, although the lack of antiphonal violins (which Brabbins has in his favour) only points to their use being part of Elgar’s creative thinking. Otherwise Petrenko ensures some smart dynamics, detailing and contrasts. There is a flamboyantly fast ‘Troyte’ (excellent timpani), a slightly self-conscious and square ‘Nimrod’, which needs greater initial hush, and ‘Dorabella’ pecks more than stammers. Ultimately – Carry On connotations now become unavoidable – a lot will depend on how you react to that big organ.

Preceding Enigma to make a well-designed concert is an expansive (twenty-four minute), stimulating and vivid account of In the South, ardent in fortissimos, expressive in quieter episodes, the Liverpool Phil in top form, although I imagine the principal viola-player might be somewhat miffed at not getting a credit for an appealing solo in the ‘Canto popolare’ section; and Petrenko’s slow-burn ‘awakening’ to the grand apotheosis is particularly compelling. The recorded sound is a tad over-bright and edgy (slightly less so for Enigma, or maybe I had got used to it), but this In the South is a really good listen. Whereas Brabbins has some Elgar rarities, Petrenko settles for the Serenade for Strings, the outer movements tucked in with point and affection, the Larghetto raptly spacious, dripping with inner feelings. Petrenko has previously recorded Elgar’s Symphonies 1 & 2 for Onyx; I wonder if we’ll get Anthony Payne’s Elaboration of No.3.

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