The British conductor talks about the importance of mystery in his new Elgar disc, Limelight’s Recording of the Month.
The Enigma Variations seems to have few, if any, antecedents in Elgar’s output or in European classical music. Can you trace its origins, or is it simply unique?
There are so many things that are totally unique about the Enigma Variations. That is one of the reasons it continues to be performed, loved by listeners, and recorded so many years after it first appeared. Having said that, the form – variations on a theme – had been around for a long time. One interesting example is the Dvořák Symphonic Variations, which is the piece I conducted when I won the Leeds Conducting Competition!! Unlike the Enigma, that piece has 32 variations!
Enigma is perhaps Elgar’s most performed and recorded orchestral work. Did you approach it with any specific personal musical agenda?
Not really… I approach every recording in the same way. Wanting to give a true and honest presentation of a composer’s intentions.
What are the main challenges facing a conductor in the work?
Gosh, there are so many! One important challenge is to maintain a sense of unity and a coherent structure, while at the same time, making each variation as individual and characterised as each of the friends Elgar was portraying. The recording studio can be an unkind mistress – by that I mean atmosphere, spontaneity, freedom, can perhaps be a little inhibited by the presence of microphones – and the fact that the sounds we make are going to be preserved for posterity. Luckily now, with countless discs behind us, the BBC Scottish and I have a good understanding and appreciation of each other. And with the wonderful recording team of Andrew Keener, Simon Eason and Dave Rowell, everybody was able to express themselves very openly and honestly, both when the microphones were switched on, and off!
Do you have personal favourite variations, or any that stand out to you for originality or depth of thought?
I love them all, but Nimrod always moves me to tears.
Do you have a favourite theory on the great enigma mystery?
None whatsoever. I find that a total distraction. The mystery is in the music, and there it should remain. A good performance of the piece should leave that unspoken mystery hanging in the air…
Which great conductors of the past do you look to for Elgarian insights?
Barbirolli is my favourite I think.
At well over 20 minutes Alassio is a fairly massive work. What makes it uniquely Elgarian, and do you see parallels with the Strauss tone poems?
It is a grand sweep of a piece, taking us on a wonderful panoramic trip to warmer climes. I think one can talk in the same breath of Strauss and Elgar – they admired one another for sure. And they were two of the greatest orchestrators. The moment one ignores an Elgar dynamic marking, accent, or detail of phrasing, then the music ceases to sound natural.
What was Elgar hoping to say with his ‘Belgian’ works, and do you sense a change in outlook across the three recorded here?
Elgar was profoundly saddened by the senseless waste of human life that WWI represents. The warmth of his humanity led him to want to support the Belgian people through his music. The pieces are very different to one another, and particularly original in Une Voix dans le Désert!
Martyn Brabbins’ recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations is out now on Hyperion