Review By Jim Tobin
Elgar's Enigma Variations are among the most satisfying orchestral variations ever written, and this performance is excellent. The Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra, is a less significant work, and I find it less appealing than other works in this genre, such as Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, but it has appeal nonetheless.
The Enigma Variations, written in 1899, were originally without that title, published simply as Variations on an Original Theme. The episodes were meant to be musical portraits of Elgar's friends, his wife and himself, and eventually these were identified publicly. Elgar initially told his wife that each variation was expressive of how different people might play the theme. Asked whom Variation 4 was like, she said, "I cannot quite say, but it is exactly the way W.M.B. goes out of the room." (It sounds rambunctious.) I have always found that report more interesting than speculation about the meaning of the overarching "enigma" theme.
This performance opens very softly, more hushed than, say, a highly regarded version by Barbirolli that I am familiar with. Wide dynamics throughout are subtly controlled, with nice crescendos and decrescendos. The performance of the sublime "Nimrod" Variation — on which I mostly judge any performance of this favorite work-- begins very softly and continues in a reverent manner — I was mindful of the tempo markings in his slow movements that the very non-religious Bartok labeled "religioso." As the climactic crescendo develops the music swells to a hair-raising sublimity before ending in a final hush. Davis gives this variation about forty seconds more time than Barbirolli, and that is time well spent. The overall timing of the two performances are about the same. The final march goes from quiet to quite loud in 24 seconds.
Generally, the performance is lively when called for, calm and relaxed at other times, rambunctious when appropriate, and the music soars gently elsewhere. The tempos are always apt.
The Introduction and Allegro dates from 1905. This 15-minute work for string quartet and divided strings (with basses not always divided) is striking for its tone and polyphony. Elgar was a violinist himself. In his notes for this recording, Lewis Foreman says that "for its virtuosity and sonority the work is a supreme achievement for the string orchestra." It exhibits both concerto grosso and sonata form structures, and climaxes in a fugue. The performance of this work, as in Enigma, displays supple phrasing and dynamics. With its nearly chamber-like sound, there is more than one hushed moment.
The recording quality is high. Woodwind sound is very clear, and there are nice clarinet and cello solo passages. Timpani, triangle, cymbals and brass are heard clearly but are not too obtrusive.