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.
A trim, at times, almost balletic Falstaff. If that seems a ludicrous contradiction, I should explain that it refers to Dutoit's spirited interpretation of the work, not the central character, though Falstaff himself has shed a few pounds in the process but is no less loveable. Indeed, Dutoit's swift tempo for the second section (at the Boar's Head) has the theme for Falstaff's 'cheerful look and pleasing eye' sounding less like Tovey's understandable misunderstanding of it as ''blown up like a bladder with sighing and grief''. The trimming down process is abetted by the Montreal sound, with lean, agile strings and incisive brass (the horns are magnificent). Some may feel a lack of warmth in the characterization. I certainly felt that the first presentation of Prince Harry's theme (0'40'') could have done with a richer string sonority. Doubtless, too, there will be collectors who, at moments, miss the generous humanity of Barbirolli, or the Straussian brilliance of Solti. And although Mackerras is wonderful in the dream interludes and Falstaff's death, the start of his fourth section, with Falstaff's rush to London only to be rejected by the new King, is short on teeming excitement and anticipation. (Gramophone)
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.