Review by Geohominid August 25, 2007 (6 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance: Sonics (MC):
|A few days ago, I watched a digital TV broadcast of a BBC Promenade Concert performance of the Enigma conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. The sound was very good, passed through a Dolby PLII processor to my surround system. It was a most inspiring occasion, with Rozhdestvensky in a happy and relaxed mood, beaming at sections of the orchestra as he encouraged them to produce a stunning performance, full of warmth, wit, humanity and Elgarian 'nobilmente'. I've just been listening to the Davis account on this disc, and although different, it too is warmly affectionate, with each of the portraits fully painted in, rather than merely sketched, and with all Elgar's myriad orchestral colours. Davis takes a flowing tempo for the theme and 'CAE, his wife's variation, but is more flexible in the tenderest moments, with some lovely truly soft playing from the LSO.
Incidentally, the 'Enigma' theme which Elgar never divulged has been the subject of many suggestions by scholars. My own view is that the first four notes of the theme in section 1 of the work are the same as in the popular Russian folk song 'The Volga Boatman', whose refrain is 'Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho!'. Elgar hinted to Dora Penny (Dorabella of Var. 11) that the theme was one that everyone knew but would never guess. The Volga Boatman was very popular in late Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms, and I can imagine that the two of them would sing it at the piano when she visited!
Returning to the Davis Enigma, Variation 6 'Ysobel' gives a chance for the large(16) viola section of the LSO to sing their hearts out gloriously. There is a wonderfully Beethovenian 'Nimrod', taken at a good moving pace, avoiding undue sentimentality and the spurious and unfortunate association with death and funerals in the public conciousness. It begins as the merest thread of sound, and Davis builds the tantalizingly brief final crescendo tautly, with magnificent blazing brass. 'GRS', Var 12, is one of my favourites, a portrait of Sinclair's bulldog Dan falling in the River Severn, paddling to shore, shaking himself and finishing with a joyful bark. Sinclair dared Elgar to set it to music, and Davis and his band paint every detail in superb sound.
It is only in the last variation, 'EDU', Elgar himself, that I felt somewhat disappointed. While Rozhdestvensky and others have brought the house down with their enthralling finales, I felt that Davis did not quite manage to move through the several false climaxes steadily enough towards the moment when the organ pedal notes underpin the ultimate exhilarating peroration. It was in this movement where I felt that the recording also let him down. In the rest of the work, the engineering produced a fine reconstruction of the concert platform in the Barbican's rather dry hall, but that dryness seemed envelop and contain the sound during the finale as if there was a low ceiling. Also I simply could not detect if the (optional but crucial) organ part was being played at all. Moving to the Jarvi version from Telarc, at the same point in the finale the visceral impact of the organ pedal added to the magnificence of the orchestral sound in a more reverberant hall - almost an unfair comparison, as with Telarc the climax certainly expanded to its true splendour.
To summarise, the Davis Enigma is certainly among the best available for its vivid portrayals and superb playing, truly affirming that this piece is one of the greatest tributes to friendship ever penned since Cicero's essay 'De Amicitia'. I feel, however that the final variation does not quite live up to the rest, either in sound or performance.
Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings is a great masterpiece of string writing and one of my absolute favourite pieces of music. However, the version on this disc was recorded at a different date to the Enigma and from the first spread chords, the word "underwhelmed" came to mind. The overall volume level was even lower than that usual for LSO live pressings. Turning up the volume helped a little. but only to reveal what sounded like a much more multi-miked engineering, with a very dry sound, even drier than the early LSO Live discs. The lack of air to allow the instruments to soar was a serious problem for me in this work. In addition, there were places where the balancing was odd, to say the least. For example, when the full violin section has its chance to sing the 'Welsh Theme' a few minutes in, the basses and 'cellos have a striding rhythm below it, but thanks to the balance engineer (or possibly Davis himself), they were far too loud, so I found it hard to listen to the main melodic strand. In general, this track sounded like a very hard-working string orchestra crammed into a confined space. It failed to give me the feeling of open air and nature which the piece is famous for. As a consolation, I turned to the splendid and under-rated Barry Wordsworth version with the RPO. which I think is one of the best on record and close to the Barbirolli benchmark. Here, at a much higher overall level, the engineers have tamed the very large acoustic of the studios used for the Membran disc (English String Music - RPO/Wordsworth). The opening flourish had all the bloom and excitement missing from LSO Live.
Get the LSO Live by all means for a very fine Enigma, but it is not the best sonically.I need to split the stars, so this would get 4.5 Stars for performance and 4 stars for recording.
I'm very disappointed in the Introduction and Allegro, and probably will rarely return to it, especially when there is the superb Wordsworth together with other delectable English String Music. It is hard to give a star rating for the Introduction and Allegro because it is dominated by the dry and close sound with eccentric balances, so I'll give the performance 4 and the recording 3 stars, averaging overall at 4 and 4. I didn't listen in Stereo.
Finally for those who have super-hearing and are worried about Colin Davis' vocal contributions to his recordings, even at high volume I was unable to pin down any croons or groans with any confidence!
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