SoundbiteS lend an ear i m a g e s
/ g e t t y i c t u r e s p i f e
i m e
/ m a n s e L L
L a m b e r t
H e r b e r t
p h o t o g r a p h y s p e n c e r i n k e v
i o n i l l u s t r a t
Philip Kennicott I
Is it possible for an American to like Elgar’s Enigma Variations a bit too much?
’m having problems with “Nimrod”. Not the biblical hunter, son of Cush, grandson of Ham, great-grandson of Noah, who one finds so minimally present in the “begat” pages of Chronicles. But the ninth movement of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the slowly swelling orgy of pompous good feelings that has quasi-sacred status in England, and would have here in America, too, if we could wean ourselves from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
I like it too much, and was reminded of my embarrassing predilection a few days ago when I heard a glorious performance of the Variations, conducted by John Adams. By the end of it, I was ready to join the Royal Navy, if they’d have me.
But it was an unexpected thing to find on the programme, especially given Adams’s consistent and admirable service in the cause of all things musically American. A few days later, I interviewed Adams and tried to confess my discomfort with the piece.
Don’t you find it rather, well, vulgar? Too self-assured in its bombast? Maybe a bit too steeped in the self-satisfied swagger of empire?
Adams would have none of it. It’s a good piece, one of those rare, strange, perfect pieces that are almost sui generis. And Elgar was a man of his time – a man from a modest background who rose to great heights and great celebrity – and one can’t expect him to distance himself from the world he knew and loved. Adams points to the complexity and poise of the main theme, with its astonishing little retrograde phrases so perfectly hidden in its artless construction.
I can’t argue with Adams who is scary smart, and as I said, my problem with “Nimrod” isn’t that I dislike it. I like it too much.
Sir Thomas Beecham might be more sympathetic to my confusion. Reading around in his autobiography A Mingled Chime, I find that he was no Elgar partisan. “The better side of him is to be found in miniature movements, where he is often fanciful, charming and, in one or two instances, exquisite,” writes Sir Thomas. But wait, he’s not done damning with faint praise: “His big periods and ‘tuttis’ are less happy; bombast and rhetoric supplant too frequently real weight and poetical depth, and he strays with a dangerous ease to the borderline of a military rodomontade that is
‘By Nimrod, I was ready to join the Royal Navy if they’d have me’
hardly distinguishable from the commonplace and the vulgar”.
He throws in that delicious word, rodomontade, almost as effortlessly as Elgar hides his mirror-image phrases, and for that alone I’d be willing to endorse Beecham’s opinion without reservation, except that he
Elgar’s splendid grandeur is problematic says all these mean things about Elgar in the context of saying many nice things about Delius. And that’s a road down which I cannot follow the great conductor. To paraphrase
(shamelessly) George Bernard Shaw: the off button on the car radio should be labelled, “in case of Delius”.
I think Americans may have particularly complex family issues with the great English composers. We have no genuinely listenable relics of the Romantic age from our own composers, who didn’t come into creative full flower until the 20th century. Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams write the music we wish we had in our own canon, and they speak with voices that sound strangely familiar in some unplaceable family-likeness kind of way.
It’s almost like it’s our own music, except it’s not. This is precisely my problem with “Nimrod”. It stirs me, and that makes me anxious, because its appeal is so profoundly English, and I’m American. I am not, in the words of that dreadful poet, C Alice Elgar, one of those “whose hands we clasp, whose hearts are kin, England’s sons across the sea…”
Beethoven stirs me, too, but that seems to be in the service of something more universal, something that knows no boundaries. It’s strange how distance functions in our appreciation of overtly emotional and particularly nationalist music. I can enjoy pure bombast from Russia (Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture) and from Germany (Beethoven’s atrocious Wellington’s Victory). I absolutely adore it from Italy, everywhere in Verdi, and even from Respighi. Time, or cultural distance, allows one to abstract the music from the cultural context, the particular patriotic appeal present in its creation.
But as so often happens, things that we tolerate at a distance are far more uncomfortable with proximity. Elgar’s sentimentality, his splendid grandeur, is simply too close for comfort, but not close enough to embrace as one’s own.
If he had been born near Worcester, Massachusetts, instead of near Worcester, England, and if he had risen to be the foremost musician in America, writing marches with names like The Liberty Bell and not Pomp and Circumstance, things would be different. Then I’d love him wholeheartedly with misty-eyed, sloppy sentimentality. I’d even sit at the piano and screech out those nasty lyrics by Alice he used in so many of his worst songs. I’d love him like I love John Philip Sousa, though that latter affection I’ll never acknowledge in public. G
24 GRAMOPHONE august 2010
www.gramophone.co.uk Disc of the Month Martyn Brabbins conducts Kenneth Leighton Symphony No. 1 • Piano Concerto No. 3 ‘Concerto estivo’ This third volume of Chandos’ acclaimed series championing the orchestral music of Kenneth Leighton presents two further premiere recordings. Howard Shelley and Martyn Brabbins are renowned for their advocacy of British music, and perform these two notable scores with characteristic flair and sensitivity. CHAN 10608 Also AvAilAble: Leighton: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (CHAN 10461) and Vol. 2 (CHAN 10495)
Tobias and the Angel This premiere recording of Tobias and the Angel helps to explain why Jonathan Dove is the most performed contemporary opera composer in the UK. The instrumental ensemble brings to colourful life David Lan’s masterly libretto based on the biblical Book of Tobit. CHAN 10606 Also AvAilAble: Dove: Siren Song (CHAN 10472)
Mahler Neeme Järvi has a long history of making recordings with Chandos. This is his second CD with the Residentie Orchestra The Hague, of which he is chief conductor. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is imbued with richness of melody and bold and original harmonies, all brought out vividly in this mid-price SA-CD recording. CHSA 5079 Also AvAilAble: Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (CHSA 5080)
Martinu˚ Paul Watkins, a cellist much in demand throughout the world, here presents his first recording on Chandos as an exclusive artist. With his brother, the pianist Huw Watkins, he performs Martinu˚’s three richly rewarding cello sonatas and two sets of variations, all full of the composer’s characteristic rhythmic vitality. CHAN 10602 Also AvAilAble: Martinu˚: Cello Concertos (CHAN 10547 X)
Aquarelle Guitar Quartet Dances is this exciting Guitar Quartet’s second release on Chandos. The percussive capability of the guitar lends itself extremely well to the rhythmic energies of many dance forms. The collection of dances recorded here highlights the versatility of the classical guitar. CHAN 10609 Also AvAilAble: Spirit of Brazil (CHAN 10512)
Haydn Trio Goya has made a speciality of the piano trios of Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven, among others. Piano trios form an important part of the chamber music output of Haydn and the four works recorded here were written when he was at the height of his powers, combining bubbling vitality, classical elegance, and a touch of mystery. CHAN 0771
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