ELGAR: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat, op. 63.* Variations for Orchestra on an Original Theme, "Enigma," op. 36.
The Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli.
Pristine Classical PASC 337 *MONO TT: 79:38.

Symphonic enigmas. We get to hear two rare recordings (1954 mono, 1956 stereo) by Barbirolli conducting a composer to whom he was especially sympathetic. The EMI stereo versions from the Sixties have obscured both. Yet they differ significantly in approach from these earlier accounts.

The Second Symphony, less popular than the First, I consider Elgar's most complex orchestral statement, both structurally and psychologically. Complexity does indeed cling to Elgar's major work. Portrayed for years as a Col. Blimp jingo by critics who took very little time to listen to the music itself, Elgar harbored more than his share of doubts and neuroses, as well as a loathing of war. However, his rhetoric fought with his feelings, and he was personally reserved unless in the company of friends. He seldom gives anything away in his best scores, the key word of which is "ambiguity." For example, the opening movement's label, "Allegro vivace e nobilimente," misleads, in that vivacity and nobility only fleetingly appear, to the extent that the recapitulation sounds hollow. Elgar headed the score with a quote from Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight." Indeed, even the main strain of an heroic opening receives mostly melancholy treatment in the course of the movement. The second movement "Larghetto" begins as a heavy dead march, while the scherzo "Rondo" teeters rhythmically, harmonically, and emotionally in a limbic state. The finale begins at equilibrium and struggles its way to hard-earned triumph.

Barbirolli leads a straight-ahead reading in 1954. Large divisions within movements are more apparent than in the later reading, but details get lost. The Hallé struggles keeping the florid opening together to the extent that the principal themes become not only indistinct, but downright blobby. It takes about four minutes before they recover enough to do justice to the music. Worse, Barbirolli himself fails to delineate the psychological argument in the first two movements.

By the Sixties, Barbirolli doesn't drive the music so. His movement timings all exceed those of the earlier outing. He lingers over details, a bit at the expense of clarifying the architecture, but he nails the drama. The Hallé plays at a consistently high level, while stereo also helps sort out the complications of the opening. Still, I found the Fifties reading instructive as a baseline from which to measure Barbirolli's growth as an Elgarian.

The Variations swim in an altogether different kettle of fish. Recorded by the outstanding Wilma Cozart and Harold Lawrence for Mercury records, this is one of the great "lost" recordings, completely overshadowed by the EMI remake. I wouldn't hesitate to call it the finest "Enigma" on record. Here, Barbirolli's directness translates into focus, and this had to have been one of the Hallé's best days ever. They rip through the flamboyant "W.M.B" and "Troyte." They play delicately in "Ysobel" and catch the mystery floating through "*." Barbirolli keeps the overall shape of each "picture" while brilliantly highlighting salient detail. He gives you some idea of the personality of each of Elgar's friends, even in those variations that sometimes just "go by." For example, the cello counter-melody toward the end of the theme's statement often comes across as lovely commentary. Barbirolli makes you understand the true brilliance of this bit of orchestration. My jaw dropped slightly when I heard it. We hear "R.P.A's" fundamental seriousness of mind as well as his occasional breezes of whimsy. I've never encountered a better "Dorabella." Here, the subject's tiresome mannerisms actually become truly enchanting. At last, I have some idea of her appeal for Elgar. "Nimrod," a recollection of a conversation about Beethoven's adagios, becomes "nobilimente" without soupiness.

In contrast, the Sixties remake is far blander and less distinct, certainly not helped by EMI's acceptable but thoroughly uninteresting recorded sound. Cozart and Lawrence's recording is crisp and sharp in it Pristine incarnation, thoroughly in keeping with Barbirolli's reading. The symphony strikes me as okay, even with the "roundedness" added by Pristine's "Ambient Stereo" process. The depth is not left to right, but (to me) front to back and high to low. However, the interpretation so fails to excite me, my lack of enthusiasm could well color my reaction to the sound.

S.G.S. (April 2013)