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Elgar: Enigma Variations; Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6

Elgar / Vaughan Williams / Brs / Davis
Release Date: 10/26/2010 
Label:  Br Klassik   Catalog #: 900705   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Sir Edward ElgarRalph Vaughan Williams
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 8 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ELGAR Enigma Variations. VAUGHAN WILLAMS Symphony No. 6 1 Colin Davis, cond; Bavarian RSO BR 900705 (68:08) Live: 1 Munich 4/30–5/1/1987

Though Colin Davis has been an advocate for English music throughout his long and honor-filled career, he has until recently been better known on disc as a champion of Berlioz and Sibelius. In 2002, LSO Live released Read more concert recordings of the two Elgar symphonies and the Payne elaboration of the Third, to mixed reviews in Fanfare (26:1 and 26:2). Davis has also recorded a somewhat diffident Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn on DG, and an Enigma Variations , also for LSO Live, that Peter Rabinowitz found praiseworthy, though hardly a revelation. With the London Symphony, Davis was working with an orchestra that could play Elgar in its sleep, so I didn’t have high expectations for this recording with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, in the first year of his directorship. I am pleasantly surprised. While this is not going to be anyone’s recording of choice in a crowded field, it is a distinctive view of the work, suffering only slightly from the stiffness of unfamiliarity. The energetic sections have an appealing vigor, lines are always kept clean and well balanced, and Davis’s hallmark precision is generally an asset. Only in the more nostalgic sections toward the end do things get sluggish or literal. The Nimrod variation, for instance, starts out beautifully hushed, but does not fully realize the throat-catching surge of the climax. The BGN variation is taken too slowly, undermining the essential wistfulness of the cellist’s portrait. The tempo of the Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage quote in the Romanza is even more drawn-out, suggesting that Elgar was seeing Lady Mary Lygon off on the Titanic. Fortunately, Davis brings things back with a vigorous EDU variation that leaves one with an overall positive impression.

It was, in any case, for the Vaughan Williams that I chose to review this release. Davis has never commercially recorded a Vaughan Williams symphony, though a powerful concert performance of the Fourth was released by the Boston Symphony in its Centennial box. His The Lark Ascending , on the Hahn disc, is the only piece by this composer that Davis has conducted for the microphones, and that is different meat altogether. The Sixth, like the Fourth, is Vaughan Williams in militant mode, and this live recording from 1987 is the most harrowing performance of the work I know. As with the Elgar, there have been more characteristically British recordings—Boult effectively created the hallmark unsettled jauntiness of English performances—but the angry muscularity and concentrated malice that Davis draws from his Munich forces is an arresting alternative. Even that romantic transformation of the first movement’s second subject—noble and warm-hearted in most recordings—does nothing to ease the tension. Vaughan Williams denied that he intended any commentary on postwar angst, but here is the embodiment of the post-apocalyptic view of this work. The central section of the Moderato suggests hopelessness in the face of the violence that surrounds it, and the final Epilogue moderato is more icily devastating than any other performance on disc; not quite pianissimo until near the end, but perfectly impassive. Only a few disappointments: The English horn solo at the end of the second movement is lumpish, and the saxophone solo in the brutal Scherzo misses the irony of the jazzy interruptions; unfortunate, but not major detractions.

The sound is excellent; rich and detailed with a wide dynamic range. With the exceptions noted, the orchestral execution is exemplary. Though of only passing interest for the Elgar, this disc is an essential acquisition for serious collectors of RVW recordings, and presents a perfect argument against those who still maintain a “cowpat school” image of this intensely expressive 20th-century composer.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma" by Sir Edward Elgar
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1898-1899; England 
Date of Recording: 12/14/1983 
Venue:  München, Herkulessaal der Residenz 
Length: 29 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Symphony no 6 in E minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Conductor:  Sir Colin Davis
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944-1947; England 
Venue:  Live  München, Philharmonie im Gasteig 
Length: 36 Minutes 20 Secs. 

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