Enigma Variations is the work that secured Elgars reputation as a composer of international significance. The 14 variations are all character portraits of friends, including his wife and the composer himself, the most famous being the ninth, the achingly nostalgic Nimrod. The Cello Concerto is Elgars last substantial work and has become not only one of his best loved, but also one of the most popular concertos ever written for the instrument.
Barbirolli made later recordings of all the works on this CD and these have become cornerstones of the catalogue. These are earlier recordings that he did with his own orchestra, the Halle, in the 1950s. To start with, the recording quality is pretty amazing. They were recorded on 35mm film tape rather than half inch recording tape by the Mercury team and have astonishing immediacy and amazingly lifelike. Barbirolli uses an organ in the finale of the Enigma Variations. The recording is a little bass heavy but this is a small caveat. For people who consider Barbirolli to be a bit indulgent as a conductor, these recordings may come as a surprise. The performances are very direct and nicely flowing. They therefore complement rather than compete with the later recordings. Of course, Barbirolli's later recording of the Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pre is a very famous and special rendition of the work. However, it is not without its detractors. Andre Navarra, by contrast, plays with golden tone. He plays gorgeously. Highly recommended.
Why has one piece of music here, the Elgar Cello Concerto played by Jacqueline DuPre become so legendary? Of course it is the music itself. It has an overpowerful haunting deeply hypnotic feeling. Elgar wrote it after his recovery from a serious illness towards the end of the First War, and his thoughts were certainly on the suffering of life, and the inevitability of death. Du Pre brings to the piece not only her great mastery as cellist, but some deeper element of feeling. There is in the playing a sense of romantic abandoment of wild disturbance, and of intense and even ferious concentration.
There are basically two ways in which conductors may approach the Enigma Variations. Either they can take the music at its face value, treating the set of variations as a symphonically developed whole; or they can treat the work as a series of miniature character sketches of Elgar’s “friends pictured within”, highlighting the personalities of the miscellaneous collection of individuals involved. William Boughton in this reading opts for the second option, and the result bubbles with life.
Celebrating his half-century as a Decca artist, as well as his eighty-fifth birthday, Sir Georg Solti here offers a nicely autobiographical collection of three sets of variations: the Peacock Variations of Kodaly representing his Hungarian roots, the lively Paganini Variations of Blacher a recognition of his years as German citizen, and finally a tribute to his unique Britishness in Elgar's Enigma Variations. The disc is also a tribute to the Vienna Philharmonic and Solti's special relationship with that orchestra, with whom he recorded these live performances in the Musikverein last April. You have only to compare this warmly expressive, subtly nuanced, and deeply felt account of the Elgar with Solti's earlier Chicago version of 1974 to appreciate not only the quality of this great Viennese orchestra, but the way in which Solti has mellowed over the last two decades.
This fine recording of Dvorák's Cello Concerto by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey with Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra is as generous, honest, and compelling as the music itself. Wispelwey has a rich, ringing tone that can ride over orchestral tutti fortes yet still sound fully present in intimate pianissimos. He also has an elegant technique that can accomplish anything the work asks without calling undue attention to itself. These qualities allow him to lean into the work's powerful drama and aching lyricism without dividing his attention. The commanding Fischer leads the rich-toned Budapest Festival Orchestra in an accompaniment as musically interesting and dramatically significant as the solo part.
The late Mstislav Rostropovich and Seiji Ozawa deliver probably the greatest digital recording of the Dvorak concerto. For those familiar with the analog Karajan/Rostropovich recording, this digital recording finds the soloist creating a similar impression married with a more supportive Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Karajan's creamy string sound and often overly-dramatic stylization is replaced here by Ozawa's stricter approach; his handling of the orchestra is masterful in this taught, precise reading. The legendary Boston Symphony responds resplendently and, although they may not highlight the rustic Czech idiom of this music, they certainly bring much charm, warmth, and expected musicality to the accompaniment. But enough about the orchestra - on to Rostropovich.
French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras explores the late Romantic repertoire on this 2013 Harmonia Mundi release and finds a kind of mirroring of intentions and expressions between Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33, and Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, Op. 85. While this is a rather subjective understanding of the music that listeners can either take or leave, there's no denying that Queyras, conductor Jirí Belohlávek, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offer performances of both works that are evocative and beautiful, with or without any underlying connections.