By the time Edward Elgar – make that Sir Edward Elgar, if you please – passed on to a better life in Mt. Parnassus, the 20th century in all its disturbing restlessness raged on and the arts reflected the tenor of the times in the visual arts, literature and music.

Sir Edward’s career as a composer had seen quieter days in which the English master could luxuriate in his brand of post-Romanticism. Ravel and Debussy had all but reinvented harmony, Strauss reigned supreme on the operatic and symphonic stages, and Schoenberg and the other Dodecaphonists, and Stravinsky had disassembled any remaining notions of melody as understood by the generation of concertgoers who still attended the evenings of music-making at Carnegie Hall in the 1940’s, the decade during which all three of the works included in this SOMM/Ariadne 5005 Elgar anthology were recorded.

Arturo Toscanini’s podium was with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and his magisterial command of his forces comes through in an elegantly re-mastered – thanks to Leni Spahr – 1949 recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The 25-minute, fifteen-part opus 36 is a fully-mature work which to this day continues to occupy a slot in many a symphonic concert program. The tenth variation, labeled Nimrod after the biblical hunter is slightly longer and better known than all, but the finale, with its return of Elgar’s noble melody a thing to be treasured.

The Italian Maestro, known for his often eccentrically quick tempi, here takes things easy, pacing the NBC musicians with elegiac gravity throughout. Even in the brisk tempi of the finale, the third, fourth, fifth, eighth, twelfth, and eleventh variations, the latter utterly charming in its scherzo mood, the speed never goes into hyper-drive. The attacks are razor-sharp throughout – a Toscanini signature, and the balance always even to a fault.

Sir John Barbirolli succeeded Toscanini at the helm of the New York Philharmonic from 1936 to 1943 before returning to England after the war to lead the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. In the 1940 live Carnegie Hall recording featured in this album, he has next to him no less than Igor Piatigorsky, who sounding for the world like the master cellist he was delivers a profoundly heartfelt Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85.

The work was written in 1919, a few months after the end of the Great War, and its dialogue between a lamenting, quivering cello and the orchestra that seems to answer the soloist’s phrases with blunt responses is riveting. The work’s four movements follow each other without a break and with an unusually unorthodox mix of unity of mood and contrasting tempi, as if to signify that the traditional four-movement structure of concertos is here subservient to the composer’s artistic urge to express his soulful lament for the war’s dead.

The concerto, now a de-rigueur staple of the cellist’s repertoire is not at all about technical fireworks but about making the cello sing, and Piatigorsky reminds us of what a superb musician he was with his patrician singing musicality.

The Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 shows Elgar in a lighter mood. The composition, subtitled Falstaff is a six movement series of episodes depicting the adventures of Sir John Falstaff, and leading to his repudiation by Hal, now King Henry, and the Fat Man’s descent to an ignominiously sad end.

Elgar evidences his mastery of orchestration, assigning to the bassoon the personality of the weight-challenged Sir John. Falstaff’s proclivity for trouble-making for himself and for creating trouble for others is depicted in the quicksilver tempo and tonal changes. The NBC musicians show their mettle, with notably nimble playing by the woodwinds.

For collectors of recordings of historical interest this offering by SOMM/Ariadne is a must-have.

Rafael de Acha