I’ve been reading (and watching — YouTube Ken Russell’s amazing film on the life of Elgar) lots about Edward Elgar over the past few weeks. About his very interesting life, especially the years before the age of forty. Married to a lady from a wealthy family, who disowned her for marrying a Catholic and a musician with no prospects, she dedicated her life to his success with unflinching support. As such, Caroline Alice Elgar never gave up on her husband, even though he did during his many bouts with melancholia. Behind every great man. It is fitting, therefore, that his greatest success as a composer should enshrine Lady Elgar so beautifully as the subject of the opening variation (C.A.E.) of his Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma).
The Enigma Variations (1899) was Elgar’s first masterpiece, played not only in England, but in Europe and the US. Even Herr. Strauss sanctioned his imprimatur. It has become a staple of any orchestra’s repertoire.
The variations are based on an original theme — most scholars suggest the ‘Original Theme’ represents the composer, and his friends and family are variations upon that theme. Whatever the genesis and attribution, Enigma Variations is a great work, with wonderful melodies, brilliant orchestration and mastery of the variation form.
This new recording engineered by Keith Johnson in the Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, is typical of the Professor’s natural sound, accorded transparency and depth. He records the Kansas City Symphony beautifully — Elgar’s very particular orchestration and dynamic markings have not been captured better on record. Minute changes in volume are heard clearly and inner string lines usually clouded over are heard with microscopic clarity. Conductor Michael Stern has done his homework with this piece and Elgar fans will not be disappointed. Both Stern and Johnson save the best for last in the E.D.U final variation (also, Elgar — Caroline’s pet name for him was ‘Edoo’). Stern adds the organ for the final few pages and audiophiles will not be disappointed. Nice to hear the organ low G dominate the last five bars — really adds to the drama and colour.
Other highlights? Fine Kansan cellist in B.G.N, Elgar’s gorgeous elegy to his cellist pal, Basil G. Nevinson, the aforementioned C.A.E — such tenderness — Dorabella’s musically blended stuttering, Dan the bulldog running up and down the river bank in W.M.B., and a straightforward Nimrod.
Included is Vaughan-Williams’ incidental music to Aristophanes’ play The Wasps and his Fantasia on Greensleeves. The Wasps, especially the fantastic overture, is very underrated VW. That this new Reference CD has such a wonderful ‘filler’ is a very musical bonus. Stern and his orchestra once again give a first class account in the finest sound. Only at times does it miss, as does the Enigma, the golden touch of the two British Bs. Boult and Barbirolli. All the works here have been recorded by these two giants and they are definitive. They also have fabulous EMI sound. That said, the pairing of these two works on one CD in the most modern sound is cause for celebration. Recommended.
Reference RR-129 HDCD
Playing time: 61:11