Smyth The Wreckers – Overture (1906)
Elgar Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ‘Enigma’ (1898-9)
English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Live performances at Worcester Cathedral, Saturday 30 October 2021
One of 2021’s welcome returns to the musical calendar, following its cessation in ‘lockdown year’, was the Elgar Festival – highlights from the final concert held at Worcester Cathedral last October comprising this latest in the English Symphony Orchestra’s digital online series.
The new production at this year’s Glyndebourne Festival should provide Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers with a suitable reassessment. Never having entirely fallen out of the repertoire, the overture affords a decent overview of the emotional impulses found therein and makes for a forceful curtain-raiser. If its headlong opening pages and plangent ensuing melody – shared between cor anglais and oboe – set up a promise not entirely fulfilled, the hymnic fervour of its climax and the impetuous final surge were keenly projected in this forthright performance.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations has been a staple of British music since its premiere 123 years ago and, by definition, a regular feature of this festival. Neither time nor familiarity has (or should have) detracted from the originality of both its underlying conception and its musical content – attributes to the fore with this engrossing account. Kenneth Woods pointed up those formal divisions into which the 14 variations fall, prefaced by the hushed rendering of a theme whose mingled wistfulness and pathos set the tone not just of this work but also for Elgar’s maturity.
On to the first stage with the searching emotion of ‘C.A.E’ – followed by the quick succession of capriciousness in ‘H.D.S-P.’, insouciance in ‘R.B.T.’, then impetus in ‘W.M.B.’. The next three variations opened-out the expressive range accordingly – hence the alternation between the earnest and playful in ‘R.P.A.’, gentle whimsy of ‘Ysobel’ with its teasing viola part, and headlong energy of ‘Troyte’. The next two variations contrast genial elegance in ‘W.N.’ with rapt eloquence in ‘Nimrod’, here rightly conveying ardent passion instead of nostalgic regret.
The following two variations yield studies of a more complementary nature – thus the halting piquancy of ‘Dorabella’ during what becomes a relatively extended intermezzo, to which the swift animation of ‘G.R.S.’ (more probably his bull-dog Dan) functions as a decidedly terse scherzo. Especially persuasive was the next brace of variations – the thoughtful undulations of ‘B.G.N.’ as framed by its haunting cello solos, then the imaginative ‘***’ which romanza takes in easy affability and aching rumination over its unpredictable and speculative course.
Its considerable expanse (though how right Elgar was to extend those concluding stages from the perfunctory end he first envisaged) makes equating the final ‘E.D.U.’ variation with what went before a test of interpretive skill. Suffice to add this performance met its challenge head on – Woods gauging that initial crescendo as a basis from which the ensuing festivities could take off, allowing necessary breathing-space for the inward central interlude to leave its mark prior to resuming the earlier extroversion, then upping momentum for the opulent peroration.
Needless to add, the organ of Worcester Cathedral made its presence felt with those weighty pedals in the work’s closing bars – setting the seal on a memorable reading which benefitted from as spacious and well-balanced sound as has been achieved with this venerable acoustic.
You can watch this concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website, with free public viewing from 8-12 April 2022. The concert is available thereafter only to ESO Digital supporters.