ELGAR: Enigma Variations; In the South, Carillon; etc. – BBC Scottish Sym. /Brabbins – Hyperion

Need another Enigma Variations? Listen to this one.

ELGAR: Enigma Variations, Op. 36; In the South “Alassio”, Op. 50; Carillon, Op. 75; Une voix dans le desert, Op. 77; Le drapeau belge, Op. 79; Pleading, Op. 48 – Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, narrator/ Kate Royal, sop./ Yann Ghiro, clar./ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion CDA68101, 81:57 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

When an English orchestra takes up the Enigma Variations, the record company must have put a great deal of thought behind it. After all, this venerable piece has been carved out (and up) by virtually every British conductor and orchestra for the last 80 years. Toscanini had the first really great one years ago with the BBC, and there is a special pride that comes with being the only nation qualified to accurately interpret this work. Maybe. Leonard Bernstein came up with one for the ages, and they hated him for it. Slatkin they loved. Sargent, in my opinion, still has the best one on record. But one of two things has to be English—the orchestra, or the conductor.

Here we have both, sort of. Since the Scottish attempt at independence failed, I guess we can still call it a “British” orchestra, especially since it is under the auspices of the BBC. And they sound great here, with Hyperion giving them some of the best and most vibrant sound I have heard from the label in a non-SACD format. Brabbins is on top of everything, quite mainline yet more sumptuous than most, and “Nimrod” is quite the moving moment it always is.

In the South, Elgar’s hyper-speed-written overture that is sort of his Harold in Italy, is given the best performance I have heard—which aren’t that many, unfortunately–since Sinopoli’s DG recording some 20 years ago. This etch-romantic symphonic sketch is one of the greatest overtures ever penned, and Brabbins plays it in exactly that way.

The curiosities are well worth a hearing, and despite my aversion to narrations in music, I was captivated by the sheer melodic genius found in the three French pieces, originally conceived during the outbreak of the Great War as a sympathetic tribute to the Belgian people. Though they are all narrated, the second, Une voix dans le desert, is a masterly rendition of superbly set song text sung to perfection by the marvelous Kate Royal. The final song, Pleading, was originally to be sung, but ended up, upon further reflection by the composer, as an orchestral work with solo instrument taking the vocal line, delicately rendered by clarinetist Yann Ghiro. All in all, a most worthy issue with enough infused quality to take its pride of place among the many Enigmas you already own.

—Steven Ritter

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