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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations on an Original Theme may be the title first sanctioned by the composer (though it has long been omitted from the title page of the Novello miniature score in favour of the universal Enigma Variations) and 'original' is the word which cries out from Bernstein's unique account, which will have traditionalist Elgarians screaming for mercy. I missed the performance and broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall, London, but a BBC2 television film with illustrations had me understanding why it caused such dissension. There are passages here which are nothing short of a caricature, notably the very opening where the first statement of the theme at a snail's pace is made even creepier with agogics and tenutos, an account of
"Nimrod" so slow it keeps threatening to come to a halt and a rendering of the final coda which completely ignores the instruction Presto, sounds ever more sluggish then threatens on the final chord never to reach the fortissimo payoff. Other speeds are almost unbelievably slow too, to give an overall timing of nearly 39 minutes or almost 10 minutes more than the regular timing, an astonishing figure.
Perverse this version may be by any objective standard, more Bernstein than Elgar, but it is one I shall still cherish, a personal comment from one composer on another, presenting the work with the utmost sensuousness. Once one is prepared to accept the oddities, there is much to enjoy, for the very opening presents a bloom on the strings of the BBC 50 such as I have never heard before. And many of the slow tempos have the advantage that inner detail is heard (thanks also to the digital recording) with a new clarity. Sometimes the descant lines uncovered by Bernstein hardly seem worth the trouble, but the orchestral glory is irresistible. And if "Nimrod" brings the most palpable assault on tradition, let it be emphasized that Bernstein at that point does not adopt the soupy manners such as disfigure his CBS account of the Adagietto from Mahier's Fifth Symphony on 72182-3, 7/64 (another piece wrongly adopted for funerals), but brings out the point that no phrase marking is more than four crotchets long. He pulls it apart in slowness rather than moulding it. At slow speeds charm and fantasy too often get lost, but even at his most wilful Bernstein has you listening afresh.
If only for curiosity value the issue is well worth hearing, but I suspect many an Elgarian will find himself turning most of all to the three marches provided as fill-up, all in their way Just as individual but much more acceptably so. Pomp and Circumstance March No. I swaggers gloriously and the first statement of the "Land of Hope and Glory" theme is beautiful and most moving. The loud repetition is a little heavy, but the final reprise glows with organ sound most satisfyingly. Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2 is not so steady as it might be, but full of charm, not least in the Dvofhk-like Trio, while the sheer hokum of the "March of the Mogul Emperors" provides a superb and apt opportunity for Bernstein to show off amid tam-tam, cymbals and tambourine. The recording generally captures Bernstein's sensuousness with warmth, though the heaviest tuttis lose something in bloom and clarity.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [12/1982]
Works on This Recording
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
Not a Fav June 24, 2014
By David Eaton (New York, NY) See All My Reviews
"Norman Lebrecht considers this one of the worst classical recordings ever made. I tend to agree. As Lebrecht tells it, the BBC musicians were quite upset with LB's tempi and what they perceived to be a disrespectful approach to this beloved score. Boult, Solti, Litton turn in far more convincing readings."
Enigma Variations March 30, 2012
By JUNE ROBB (DAVIDSON, NC) See All My Reviews
"Heard the wonderful music on WDAV and just had to buy the CD!"