Thursday, September 28, 2006

CD REVIEW: Britten/Elgar, Cincinnati Symphony

Mary Ellyn Hutton of the Cincinnati Post thinks Paavo's newest CD with the Cincinnati Symphony would make a good addition to that list for St. Nick!
Britten, "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes"; Elgar, "Enigma Variations." Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Paavo Järvi, conductor. Telarc. A

This tenth Telarc recording by music director Paavo Järvi and the CSO has a British accent, and an appealing one, too, with Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

Britten's theme and variations - much more colorful than the scholastic title it bears - shows off the CSO brilliantly. As the theme (by 18th-century British composer Henry Purcell) passes through the sections of the orchestra, each characteristic timbre and personality is captured vividly. Järvi and his players give it an extra charge here and there, as in the riotous percussion variation, the boisterous fugue and the return of the theme, which Järvi summons from the depths of the orchestra with pulse-quickening inexorability.

Paired with it and the Elgar is a less known score by Britten, the Four Sea Interludes from his opera "Peter Grimes." Britten equals any composer in history in his ability to craft images in music, like the look and feel of a dreary morning on the coast of East Anglia ("Dawn"), which he paints with high, cool strings broken by strands of bubbly winds, like ocean spray or rays of sunlight through the clouds. "Sunday Morning" utilizes bells, bustling, quirky rhythms and woodwind bird calls for a genuine sense of fun (scarce in this opera about disillusionment and death in a British fishing village). "Moonlight" is similarly evocative, with glints of flute and harp against soft, slow-moving strings, while "Storm" is inexorable in its fury.

Järvi and the CSO have competition with Elgar's much-recorded work. There is the highly emotive 1987 rendition by Leonard Slatkin and the London Philharmonic and the lovely 2002 Deutsche Grammophon recording by John Eliot Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic. Not only does Gardiner have the peerless sounding box of Vienna's Musikverein for a recording studio, but the aristocratic Viennese ensemble at his command.

Still, I admire Järvi's immaculate attention to detail (the coins on the kettledrum can be heard clearly in variation 13, rendered, according to the album insert, with authentic British pennies) and the depth of his interpretation. The CSO music director is not all dash and verve, though he can certainly deliver that, as in variation seven, with its pounding timpani and urgent-sounding trombones (portrait of a friend of the composer banging out a tune on the piano). There is also tenderness, as in the opening statement of the theme and in variation 12, with its aching cello solo (a secret love of Elgar's?).

As for the famous "Nimrod" variation (number nine), Järvi does something I have rarely heard, which is to sustain the orchestral sound without a break into the final fortissimo fragment of the "Enigma" theme. It is highly effective.

He wraps it up with an exciting, triumphant final, capped by a sustained, organ-permeated, fortissimo chord. Recorded in Music Hall, the sound is captured expertly by Telarc's painstaking engineers.

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