Enigma Variations CD, Import
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The Vienna Philharmonic under John Eliot Gardiner brings a sense of freshness of discovery to Elgar's noble music. This is partially because this is hardly regular repertoire for the orchestra, and also as Gardiner approaches the scores with a clear individuality of interpretation. Bringing these four works together makes for a satisfying 70 minutes of listening. In the South brings with it moments of almost unbearable delicacy and tenderness which nevertheless do not sound sentimental. A refreshing ardour and dark dramaticism also mark out this reading. Gardiner captures the individual sound worlds of the Introduction and Allegro and Sospiri to perfection. The tender nostalgia of the former and the warmth of the latter lead to an account of the Enigma Variations distinguished by real attention to detail (emphasised by DG's clear and well-balanced recording). Gardiner refuses to milk the music for all it is worth as some interpreters do, preferring to let it speak smoothly and naturally: because of that the performance emerges as all the more emotionally charged. The Vienna players seem to revel in Elgar's frequently beautiful scoring. This Enigma Variations is worthy to sit alongside the finest in the catalogue. Indeed, this disc is a triumph. --Colin Clarke
John Eliot Gardiner isn't the world's most inspired conductor, but I hoped he would be able to impart some vision of his own. Listening to the "In the South" overture that opens the disc, I'm met with a festive atmosphere. My interest was kept throughout the entire overture, although it's certainly the Vienna Phil that provides the greatest attraction. At least Gardiner doesn't inhibit the orchestra. I do wish he would be a bit more sentimental, but this is a brilliant overture, so that's forgivable.
The Introduction and Allegro for Strings is so rich and warm that it takes the breath away. But again, I don't sense that it's Gardiner making the show. I sense little artistic involvement from him, but the glory of the playing is beyond what we expect from even the LSO. I felt much the same way about "Sospiri".
I bought the disc for the Enigma Variations. Elgar incorporated a world of dark beauty into the work that causes me to love it with a passion. There's something inherently Brahmsian about the work. I bought this disc after coming home from a Carnegie Hall concert with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle's reading was incredibly touching, filled with retrospection yet always pulsating and alive. I hoped this disc would have some of the same magic I witnessed with Vienna's only rival. It does to an extent. Vienna's playing is almost as effortless as Berlin's and warmer. But my disappointment is in Gardiner. While he fosters bright, sprightly playing, he doesn't see all the melancholy and regret Elgar sprinkled on virtually every page. (Is this what reviewers are referring to when they say his Elgar is "radical"?) That was a major disappointment, even though I enjoyed the other-worldly playing. "Nimrod" is of course the emotional center of the work, but Gardiner runs through with no desperation. Rattle left me in tears with his poignant intensity in Carnegie Hall but there's no trace of that here. I'll continue to enjoy the performance, but it's due to Vienna. Why couldn't Vienna find a more inspired, committed conductor?
If you want to hear the Vienna Phil engaging in communicative, ravishing playing, here's your chance. Just don't be expecting anything from Gardiner.
P.S. April 2013: For those wanting their Enigmas with top-notch virtuosity, James Levine's reading on Sony with the Berliners surpasses this in every way, with committed conducting and peerless playing.