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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Falstaff – Symphonic Study, Op.68 (1913) [33:19]
Enigma – Variations on an original Theme, Op.36 (1899) [29:46]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.5 in C, Op.39 (1930) [5:41]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Davis
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 4-5 January 1974. ADD.
LYRITA SRCD.301 [68:46]

Experience Classicsonline


Falstaff has been one of my favourite Elgar works ever since I heard Elgar’s own recording broadcast on what was then still called the Third Programme. I am pleased to see so many fine recordings in the catalogue. The Enigma Variations are perennially popular, so it is no surprise that so many excellent versions are available, some of which couple Falstaff and Enigma, a practice which I think was initiated with the Mackerras EMI recording.

The coupling on that deleted EMI recording, seriously under-rated by the reviewers in my opinion, struck me as ideal. It has since been used for Simon Rattle’s highly-praised versions (EMI 5 55001 2) and I am pleased to see the pairing return with the reissue of this Lyrita CD. I am sure, too, that it was right to put Falstaff first – for all my allegiance to it, hearing it immediately after Enigma might have been something of an anti-climax.

Davis has gone on to record both works again, currently available on two bargain-price Warner Apex CDs – both offering superb value: you could purchase both for the price of this Lyrita disc and also have Cockaigne, Introduction and Allegro and the Serenade for Strings (with Enigma on 0927 41371 2 – also available as a Warner Classics download for 3: 0927 41371 6) plus Froissart, Romance and excerpts from Grania and Diarmid (with the Falstaff CD, 2564 62200 2). Or you could download Andrew Davis’s versions of all the major Elgar works, including his fine versions of the symphonies – the equivalent of 4CDs, for just 10 (2564 62199 6).

Be aware, however, that Warner’s downloads come as ‘locked’ wma files, which not all programmes will play, sync to mp3 player or burn to CD. Nor can Roxio Copy and Convert transform them to mp3 format to play on an ipod. The only way to sync or burn them is to use Windows Media Player with its annoying habit of adding breaks between movements when the music is continuous – unless some technically-minded reader can make an alternative suggestion.

Davis’s tempi in Enigma have tended to become a little broader with the passage of time, first on his deleted CBS version and again on Warner – just a few seconds added to the times of most of the variations, but nothing hugely significant. I have made his Warner version my standard choice for Enigma, and I shall certainly not be disposing of it, not least because of the excellent couplings, including the best Introduction and Allegro since the classic Barbirolli. Re-hearing this earlier account with the NPO, however, I am inclined to prefer it marginally. Sometimes first, fresh thoughts retain a slight edge – Nigel Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Concerto, for example, though I know that I am swimming against the tide in preferring the earlier version – and I think this is the case here.

In the case of ‘Nimrod’ (track 14), the remake is considerably slower than the Lyrita – 4:16 against 3:20. I have never felt that the Warner version was too slow, so I listened particularly carefully to this earlier account for signs of haste. Paradoxically, for a variation named after the mighty hunter Nimrod – a pun on the name of the publisher Jaeger – this variation is marked Adagio. I suppose that stealth is just as much a consideration as speed for a hunter. Is the earlier version too fast? Not at all. I am aware that I am trying to have my cake and eat it – sometimes you can, with different interpretations of music – but this earlier version sounds just as ‘right’ within its own context as the newer version does. When the music soars - just after 2 minutes into track 14 - both performances do so, too.

‘Dorabella’ is one of the few variations where the new and the old are almost identical. In both versions Davis’s Andante is spot-on, but the lightness of touch in the older account just swayed the balance. One reviewer of Davis’s deleted CBS version, which came between the Lyrita and Warner accounts, found this movement earthbound, which is emphatically not the case here.

The Finale is marginally faster in the new version: here, again, I found it very hard to choose between the two. On the Lyrita version the grand account of the end of the movement (track 19) leads into the filler, Pomp and Circumstance No.5 (track 20) without too much sense of a change of gear. Against all my self-imposed rules of keeping only one version of each piece of music, both Davis versions of Enigma will be staying in my collection.

Comparisons are difficult in the case of Falstaff, because the Warner recording breaks the piece into 29 tracks, as opposed to Lyrita’s four main sections, but the tendency here, too, has been for Davis’s interpretation to broaden slightly over the years. Once again, however, for all the excellence of the new recording, I find myself slightly preferring the earlier version: no sense of hurry, for example, in the Dream Interlude (track 2).

As usual, you may be sure that a short review betokens high approval on my part. As Sir Thomas More reminds us in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, a maxim of the law is that silence implies consent – qui tacet consentire. The wonderful Paul Schofield film of that play is available on an elusive DVD – well worth tracking down, for Schofield’s greatest rôle.

I put this CD on with high expectation within minutes of opening my latest batch of review discs – and I certainly was not disappointed. With attractive art-work and excellent notes by Michael Kennedy (Falstaff – explaining the programme behind the music – and Enigma) and Lewis Foreman (Pomp & Circumstance) and recording which, though ADD, is little inferior to the Warner remakes, I have no hesitation in nominating this as a Recording of the Month: far preferable to the other Lyrita Elgar recording advertised in the booklet, the curiously low-key Boult version of the two symphonies, for which the conductor was persuaded against his better judgement not to divide the violins left and right. The 2-LP version of this was my only disappointment ever with Lyrita.

But don’t let me put you off buying the two Apex CDs if you want the extra pieces – both the Lyrita and Warner versions are worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Boult’s EMI recordings of Elgar.

Brian Wilson

See also review by Rob Barnett




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