Recently in Recordings
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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.
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
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