ELGAR:  In the South, Op. 50.  Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47.  Sospiri, Op. 70.  Enigma Variations, Op. 36
Vienna Philharmonic Orch/John Eliot Gardiner, cond.

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 463 265 (F) (DDD) TT:  69:48

If John Eliot Gardiner has managed not be named the Malcolm Sargent of his generation - that wilted palm goes to Sir Neville Marriner - his cleverness as a period-instrument specialist created enough publicity over a 20-year-period that, lo!, we find him once more recording with the Vienna Phil in the hallowed (albeit ever-problematic) Musikvereinsaal. The orchestra plays with a blowzy gusto in ff and fff passages, of which there are plenty in the two longest works here by that unlikely Auslander, Edward Elgar, Knight of a Realm that began to shrink after WWI. (Well, before actually, when the Wright Brothers took to the sky at Kitty Hawk.)

I hadn't expected the grimly hypertensive Gardiner to be so persuasive in the tender canto populare midway in Alassio, a.k.a. In the South, which Elgar called a Concert Overture although it is in fact a symphonic poem inspired by Italy. Gardiner is equally caressing and cajoling in Sospiri (Sighs) for strings, harp and organ, which wears the scent of a commissioned piece but sounds remarkably heartfelt. He gets the VPO strings (and a string quartet of their leaders) to play a robust performance of the Introduction and Allegro, with its back-to-Bach fugue following the Introduction with a Welsh tune heard on holiday - so good it sounds idiomatic.

On the other hand (and Gardiner has one that misbehaves like Dr. Strangelove's), he begins In the South by invoking the third act Prelude to Lohengrin, and then drives the main section and recapitulation recklessly, like a tourist on the Via Amalfi in a vintage MG, accelerator pressed to the floorboard. Until, that is, the "moonlight" section arrives, and "becomes him," as an old song lyric used to say. But the jacket cover calls this collection Enigma Variations, and Gardiner doesn't seem to have read much about the characters portrayed (whom annotator Stephen Banfield neglected to identify). Lady Elgar's first variation is suitably calm and genteel (but lasts only 1'32"), and "Dorabella" obviously charmed Gardiner as she did the composer. But too often he drives the music mercilessly. "Dan," George R. Sinclair's barking bulldog in No. XI, which has fallen in the water, could as well depict a Crimean cavalry charge. "Nimrod," the work's nobilmente emotional center, is understated (granted there have been too many wallowing performances since 1899, the most egregious in my experience being Sir John Barbirolli's at the 1966 opening of Houston's Jones Hall). While Gardiner's Enigma Variations doesn't end frenziedly - the composer's grandiose depiction of himself as he probably wished he'd been in person - like everything else here it is over-italicized, sometimes to the brink of parody.The VPO humors Gardiner in a manner more Straussian than Elgar would have liked (even if he did implicitly encourage it in his orchestral music). But their performance is still tourism rather than green-carding, much less citizenship. Otherwise, DGG's recording team - headed by producer David R. Murray and recording engineer Cath Pollard - tamed the Musikvereinsaal, without a halo of post-production artifice heard on many recordings from Vienna in recent years.

You want Enigma Variations as a main course? Try to find Boult's with the LPO on CfP (the Concerts for Pleasure budget label) - but not his old-age version(s) with the LSO on EMI, which were increasingly perfunctory.

R.D. (April 2002)