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.
NOW FROM PRISTINE CLASSICAL
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.
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,
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
blobby. It takes about four minutes before they recover enough to do
justice to the music. Worse, Barbirolli himself fails to delineate the
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)