This recent LSO Live disc of Elgar's Enigmas and Introduction and Allegro comes from the end of Sir Colin Davis' reign in London. The British press was enthusiastic, with the Times saying, "The strings were immaculate...one wishes Elgar could have heard this scintillating performance". The British are known for praising their own, but Davis has a lot going for him, not least the LSO, probably the world's dominating Elgar orchestra. How did everything turn out?
With classic performances from the likes of Monteux and Rattle having come before, Davis needs to be individual to make a lasting impression. Davis doesn't try to compete with those who have made the Enigmas intensely personal and melancholic. His approach is a bit moderate, actually, favoring ideas that bring out the work's charm. He has the LSO in wonderful shape, especially the strings. Everything sounds crisp, almost chamber-like at times. The faster variations are energetic, but don't expect overwhelming big sound. One can tell that this orchestra has Elgar in its blood, and Davis is sympathetic, finding a wide variety of colors. Details surround us, and we are taken back to the days of old England. Elegance predominates; there's an almost royal atmosphere.
But while I appreciate much of what Davis does, I go away wondering if he's not personal enough. Davis seems at his best in the bright, sunny variations, but when the monumental "Nimrod" comes along, it seems stately without anything to set it apart as the work's emotional center. The final variation describing Elgar himself comes across sounding too much like the 6th Pomp and Circumstance March--there's just not enough passion. Everywhere Davis is stylish and sometimes he is truly alive, but I wish for more depth, perhaps darkness. Still, what Davis does is attractive, and the vibrant, almost intimate playing sets this reading apart.
Since the LSO strings were the most memorable section in the Enigmas, it's a joy to hear them by themselves in the Introduction and Allegro. Once again, Davis chooses a moderate approach but he makes the work lovable. It's easy to see why the LSO reigns supreme in Elgar after hearing this vibrant performance.
Does this disc present itself as a candidate to join the greatest Elgar recordings? I don't think so, but the musical gems are manifold and it's easy to see why the British critics raved. Just expect refinement over drama.