Elgar Conducts Elgar: Enigma Variations; Symphony No. 2 in Acoustic Recordings, 1920-25, Splendidly Remastered by Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical

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Elgar conducts an acoustic session.
Elgar conducts an acoustic session.

Elgar Conducts Elgar–Enigma Variations; Symphony No. 2
The Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Sir Edward Elgar, conductor
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, October 2011

Recorded 1920-1925
Pristine Audio CD PASC313 (Download or CD)

There is fascination here—on many levels. “Within these grooves”, I am tempted to say, though one’s gratitude this time is for the cleaning crew. Pristine has already given us some remarkable technical restorations of the Furtwangler discography. Encountering now these listenable and vivid performances by Sir Edward Elgar, recorded into acoustic horns at the near infancy of the art, is to know the best sort of alliance between digital wizardry and artistic judgment.

At the dawn of the stereo era, older listeners will recall, attempts were occasionally made to rescue the obsolete recordings of famous conductors with artificial “stereo”, most notably Arturo Toscanini. Those not-very-convincing forays into dimensionality relied on dividing frequencies between left and right speakers and pumping out-of-phase material into the mix, with swimmy bass the usual result in a woozy ping-pong game. A dedicatedly moribund acoustic in Studio 8-H didn’t help.

The beauty of Pristine’s approach, now facilitated with digital tools, has been to unearth phase material hidden in the textures of old recordings, but emphasize only what suits the “golden mean” of the performance. The rear speakers of my sound system were quite active playing these Elgar works. But the extra ambience simply allowed one’s ear to separate more of the strands and textures and take in a surprisingly rich warm bass. And of course, all sorts of mechanically induced irregularities of pitch, dynamic range and frequency have been made listenable. It is a big improvement.

Fascination with this CD, though, lies deeply elsewhere. One doesn’t turn to early recordings of great works for the magnificence of their engineering. One seeks instead a clean window on the past, in this case, a remarkably remote one. All the musicians in Elgar’s recordings are dead now. Yet here they are, crammed in together, rustling their feet, blowing and sawing away. And it is left for us to understand what they hoped we would hear—and how legitimately to carry forward as stewards the best of their vision.

If these renditions of the “Enigma” Variations and Second Symphony are to be considered any indication at all, then Roger Norrington’s early music enthusiasts have been on the wrong track for a long time, at least where authentic Elgar performing tradition is concerned. The Variations open here with massive amounts of vibrato, which is heard throughout, high and low, and in the symphony, as well. Certainly nothing metallic-sounding or early-music-wheezy is ever encountered! Gut strings make that difference, it seems, pace Sir Roger! (Indeed, there exists a very strange Norrington CD of the “Enigma” Variations on the Hänssler label. Below the stave it sounds like Elgar—above, like a Handel Concerto Grosso for banjo.)

If anything, one has trouble accepting the excessive sweetness of violin tone on this CD, with its very swoopey strolling-violinist portamento. I have the impression though, that exaggerated portamento was a tool the players knew they were using for recording in a crowded anechoic acoustic, where one stand of each instrument may have had to produce the sense of a larger sonority. Indeed, with louder passages on the recording, portamento tends to disappear. One does well to recall, too, that the wind-up Victrolas of the day could barely make the music audible against a hash of background noise. Victrolas were still nearly toys. I deliberately played the CD quietly as an experiment, against the sound of some water running from a tap. The purpose of the excessive portamento immediately became apparent to me: at low volume levels, it allows you to follow the music more easily in the dead but noisy acoustic.

The ideal of an anechoic recording studio was one of the sad mistakes of early sound history. Severance Hall in Cleveland misguidedly opened for business with felt covering the walls. Even now, without it, the hall has a shorter reverberation time than perhaps it should. And the persistence of the idea led to the dry crackle of so many of Toscanini’s recordings, right up to the end of his career in 1954. But at the time of Elgar’s acoustic recordings, claustrophobic sound was the norm. Still, there is something inherently unnatural about it—like eating chocolates in a coat closet. And one extrapolates from it at one’s peril.

The first electrical recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony was issued in 1928, all of three years after the one included on this Pristine CD. (It is available from Naxos and on YouTube.) Against what is clearly a concert hall acoustical background and with a full complement of strings, lo and behold, eighty percent of the portamento is now gone! Indeed, by 1928 the composer’s recorded way with the piece is so recognizably modern, that one can hear how faithfully Sir Adrian Boult would come to reflect the composer’s insights in his many later recordings.

Elgar’s temperament as a conductor was unlike that of his other great champion, Sir John Barbirolli, who was prone to expansive tempo changes. But Boult seemed cut from the same cloth, and indeed Sir Adrian’s final majestic 1976 recording of the symphony includes slithery touches in the same places as some of them are to be found on this Pristine CD.

The music itself here is something of a victim of 78 RPM side-lengths, with some odd tempo choices and truncations resulting. “Nimrod” only has one climax in this performance, and is played very fast. (In a later recording Elgar takes it much more slowly, and since neither one is exactly at his metronome marking, which is probably set a bit too high, one feels free to suppose the way we hear it these days is about right.) And transitional passages in the Second Symphony’s first movement tend to get hurried through, so one can reach the next tune, presumably. One is reminded at these moments that one is in the presence of something of a cultural novelty item.

Even so, listening to old performances can be a joy. But like summoning the dead at a seance, it can sometimes say as much about you as it does about history.

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