Royal PO's performance is outstanding in many ways. Menuhin has deep understanding of Elgar's music and its innermost yearning. Every movement displays his genuine affinity with the inspiration and characterisation of the music. Tempi are perfectly judged throughout, the famous 9th variation Nimrod, for example, is neither too fast nor too slow, achieving maximum grandeur and dramatic effect without losing forward momentum. The fast variations are bursting with energy and verve, the slow variations are played with amazing subtlely and heart warming intimacy. The additional organ in the last variation amplifies the scale of the monumental finale.
Elgar's two symphonies are good example of interpretations of music being stuck thanks to the strange British conservatism. If you listen to 10 recordings of these symphonies by 10 British conductors, they all sound more or less same in terms of interpretation: controlled, noble, beautiful Elgarian rubato and so on.
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.
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.