Edward ELGAR (1854-1934)
Variations of an Original Theme Op.36 Enigma
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
also includes rehearsal footage.
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 April 1982 and BBC Omnibus studio.
Directed by Peter Butler (concert) and Humphrey Burton (rehearsal)
Aspect ratio 4:3; NTSC Region code 0
ICA CLASSICS ICAD5098
[39:07 (concert); 25:16 (documentary)]
Leonard Bernstein’s only engagement with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
took place in April 1982 and resulted in the spectacular clash of
cultures captured quite splendidly on this DVD. It’s always
riveting and often excruciating. Bernstein had visited London on a
fairly regular basis prior to this meeting with the BBCSO, appearing
with the New York Philharmonic on their various tours. He made several
guest appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra, including a
memorable Mahler Eight at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 and
a Stravinsky memorial concert in 1972. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra
it was therefore something of a coup to lure the famous maestro away
from the LSO.
Bernstein, aged sixty-three at the time, had entered a phase in his
conducting career where he tended to take slow movements slower than
ever before and fast movements at a rattling pace. Anyone who has
heard his later Mahler recordings will know exactly where I’m
coming from. This habit had developed during his final decade and
it puts his rather eccentric view of the Enigma Variations
Before watching the concert performance I would recommend playing
the rehearsal sequence through first of all. Having been delayed in
traffic, the conductor breezed into the rehearsal studio, made no
apologies whatsoever for being late and then rudely cut off the speech
of welcome being delivered by the leader, Rodney Friend who was previously
the leader of the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein. It comes
over as a dreadful start to a fractious rehearsal. Although not shown
on the DVD, Bernstein started to lecture the orchestra on how to play
Elgar and insisted on calling the composer Eddie. This was a clash
between an American used to dealing with New Yorkers and an orchestra
steeped in the Boult tradition. It was an accident waiting to happen.
The orchestra became more and more uncomfortable, embarrassed and
restless. Bernstein finally got down to the task in hand and ran into
problems straightaway with the slow tempo chosen for Elgar’s
theme. At one point there’s a real bust-up with a trumpet player,
who doesn’t cover himself in glory with his unnecessary rudeness;
maybe this was just a culmination of what had been going on before.
At one point Bernstein gets his own back on the brass section when
he shouts ‘you talk big but you don’t last’ at a
tuba player who tries to confront the conductor and then makes a right
royal mess of his part. The real icing on the cake is Nimrod,
taken at around half the normal speed. The orchestra follows the conductor’s
direction but clearly has no real belief in what they are being asked
Bernstein was never dull. He had his own views on every piece he performed.
If the BBC Symphony Orchestra were expecting a bland run-through they
were a million miles off the mark. Although you couldn’t always
be in agreement with Bernstein’s approach, one thing’s
for sure: he did everything with love, conviction and tremendous animal
magnetism. In every concert and recording in which he was involved
he had something new to say and for that I am grateful. The great
violinist Isaac Stern referred to him once as a musician who could
over-gild the lily on occasion. That’s just what he does with
Elgar but it’s all done with sincerity and integrity.
The performance given at the concert totally belies the troubles encountered
during the rehearsals. The orchestral playing is magnificent. There
is tremendous detail and clarity to be heard in Bernstein’s
interpretation. Some movements are fast and furious and the level
of virtuosity displayed, especially by the strings, is incredible.
The woodwind players excel throughout. The slower variations do have
a tendency drag here and there - too much over gilding. Nimrod
is a write-off but the Finale is superb.
In summary I found this DVD to be in turns thought-provoking, cringe-worthy,
entertaining and uplifting. Quite a mix in such a short time-span.
Masterwork Index: Enigma