Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sir John’s 1962 Recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

When I was first allowed to explore the record collection in the Coatbridge High School music department library, I made a number of startling discoveries. This would be around 1971. We were lucky to be able to borrow these records (with permission) for ‘homework’ listening. At this time, I had begun to discover the rich treasury of British Music which has kept me engaged for the past 45 years (along with other nationalities, I hasten to add). In spite of it being a Scottish school, there was precious little music composed by native composers on record at that time. I think there was only Sir Alexander Gibson’s fine recording of Hamish MacCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.  (ASD 2400, 1968).

I had already borrowed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, coupled with his heart-breaking Sospiri issued on a 78 rpm double-disc set (HMV DB 3198-9). In those days every ‘home’ radiogram had a ‘changer’ for playing 78s! The music was performed by Sir Adrian Boult with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and had been recorded in March 1937. I was bowled over, and still regard it as my favourite version of this piece.
So it was with some delight that I found an LP of Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Cockaigne Overture and the Enigma Variations. I guess it was the sleeve that immediately impressed me, rather than thoughts about the music, about which I had little clue. The man on the bicycle was clearly meant to be the composer. It seemed to epitomise for me, aged 15, all that I loved about the few pieces of English music I had then heard, the poetry of Hardy and Housman and the landscape. At that time I had not seen the BBC ‘Monitor’ film by Ken Russell (first shown on BBC TV, Sunday 11 November 1962)

The details of the album are straightforward. Both works were recorded at the Kingsway Hall during 27-8 August 1962. It was issued in 1963 on the HMV label (ASD 548 Stereo and ALP 1998 Mono). Over the years, this recording has been re-presented on many occasions: on LP, Cassette, CD and download. The Cockaigne Overture is currently available on EMI CDM 7 64511 2 (1993) coupled with the Symphony No. 1 in A flat. The ‘Enigma’ Variations was released on EMI CDM 5 66322 2 (1997). It is coupled with Falstaff. There is also a boxed set containing both works.
One unfortunate result of recording technology at that time was that the listener had to turn the record over for the finale (Variation 14) of the ‘Enigma Variations’. I do not recall it bothering me: that was life in those days.

The original album was reviewed by T.H. (Trevor Harvey) in The Gramophone magazine (November 1963).  He began his assessment by suggesting that ‘any temptation I felt to say, “Oh, dear! Yet another recording of the Enigma” soon disappeared when I began to listen, for this is emphatically not just “another recording”: It is an absolutely outstanding performance.’  He was impressed by the sound engineering which delivers every nuance of ‘Barbirolli’s care’ towards the music. The balance is ‘first rate’ and ‘nothing that happens down below in the ‘cellos and basses is missed.’
The performances of both works by Sir John and the Philharmonia are ‘right from the heart’ and ‘always guided by the head.’ The ‘Enigma’ Variations ‘come from a conductor who has had them inside himself all his life, yet at this performance seems to love them more than ever…’

I am privileged to have been introduced to one of the greatest masterpieces of English music by way of Sir John’s fine recording. And the Cockaigne Overture is pretty good to. I remember being bowled over by the ‘lovers walking in the London Park’ theme. I could not get it out of my head. I still hum, whistle and sing this tune 45 year later. 

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