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Recordings

Haitink conducts Elgar and Britten
02 Aug 2006

Haitink conducts Elgar and Britten

Commemorating some of its outstanding concerts of the 1980s and Bernard Haitink, its principal conductor (from 1967-1979), the London Philharmonic Orchestra has released on its own label a single CD that includes several pieces that brought notice to the ensemble.

Haitink conducts Elgar and Britten

Heather Harper, soprano, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (cond.).

LPO 0002

$15.99  Click to buy

While Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was recorded on 27 November 1984, the Enigma Variations was recorded two years later, at a concert on 28 August 1986; Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers is an even earlier recording, which dates from 14 August 1979. These are recordings unique to the London Philharmonic Orchestra that have not been previously released commercially.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 (1904-5) may be less familiar to American audiences, but this is a fine example of the composer’s work for string orchestra with its concertato style that plays a string quartet against the entire ensemble. This work demonstrates the fine string ensemble that is typical of the London Philharmonic, and the sound quality on the CD gives a fine sense of the timbre. It is a work that deserves to be performed more often, and this release may inspire other orchestras to include this turn-of-the-century work on future programs. The interplay between the chamber group and string orchestra creates some intensive sonorities that anticipate scorings that Elgar would take up later in other works, like the Enigma Variations included in this release. While the liner notes suggest a concerto with the concerto grosso, this remains a single-movement work that drives to a wonderful conclusion, which is capped with the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

With more a familiar work, like Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 36 (1898-99), several fine recordings exist. Yet a live recording of a performance conducted by Bernard Haitink is welcome for the spontaneity and finesse that emerges in this release. Significant as it is to recall the puzzling aspect of the allusions in this music, knowing all the details is not as important as hearing the techniques Elgar used to develop his thematic ideas in the fourteen variations. In the tradition of the great orchestral variation sets, like Brahms’ Haydn Variations, Elgar’s piece remains popular because of both the strength of its content and the orchestration, which emerge colorfully in this live performance. Haitink offers a fine reading, where the winds and brass never overpower the string texture at the core of this work. The mercurial “Troyte” variation is telling for its precision – never do the brasses overwhelm the musicality that must occur in such a successful performance. Haitink’s shaping occurs at various levels, with clear articulations punctuating Elgar’s sometimes angular phrases, while also giving breadth to the sweeping phrases that are central to a variation like “Nimrod.” In that piece, Haitink has demonstrated his sensitivity to the larger structure while also attending to the details that must be in place. It is unfortunate that some audience noises intrude on the final section, “EDU,” in which Haitink brings the work to a majestic conclusion. Nevertheless, this is a solid performance that merits repeated hearing for the nuances that are part of it.

The third piece on this recording is Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8 (1936), which is a setting of texts by W. H. Auden. In this work Britten addresses the theme of hunting by treating it with gusto. No sacrosanct treatment of the topic, Auden used the opportunity to take the sport to task, and Britten underscored the ironic tone with music that sharpens the meaning further. At the same time Heather Harper offers an effective reading of this fine score. There are moments in which her ringing tones suggest timbres one encounters in Strauss’s operas – roles that she has been known to execute with aplomb. The five songs in this set benefit from Haitink’s sensitive tempos that allow the text to be heard clearly. Harper’s diction is clear from the start, such the texts published in the liner notes are not absolutely necessary. When the music demands a more lyric, rather than declamatory, approach, as in “Messalina,” Harper’s enunciation remains exemplary, and the line is always present. “Rats Away!” is telling for the prominent part the orchestral plays in tone painting, to which Harper responds well. It is a delight to know of this recording, which, like the other pieces included has the added quality of spontaneity from the concert performance now available through the London Philharmonic’s own label.

Again, this release of material from the London Philharmonic’s archive makes available some fine performances that deserve to be known better. Like another of its releases, a collection of excerpts from Wagner’s operas conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, this recording also celebrates Bernard Haitink, whose association with the Orchestra brought forth some fine concerts, like the ones represented by this selection. Those not yet familiar with the London Philharmonic’s own recordings can start with this fine compilation of three excellent examples of English music from the last century.

James L. Zychowicz

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