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Double Double.

In this installment of Double Double, Tom Lyle and I once again take an independent listen (other than deciding on which CDs to compare, we do not discuss the recordings with each other until after we have completed our writing) to two competing recordings of English music, and once again we compare an inexpensive Naxos release with a more expensive version on a "major" label. Last time around it was the music of Vaughan Williams (Sinfonia Antartica), this time it is the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) of Sir Edward Elgar, generally referred to as "The Enigma Variations." Last time around, our Naxos CD featured the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by the young conductor Kees Bakels, while this time around we have the same orchestra but this time conducted by the veteran conductor and old Elgar hand, George Hurst (Naxos 8.553564, recorded in 1995). Last time around, our comparison was to a recording made by a knighted conductor no longer with us (Sir Adrian Boult), and that is the case this time, too, with this performance of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti (London 452 853-2, recorded in 1996). Given that this is an odd-numbered -- and perhaps even rather odd -- issue, I will go first, and then let Tom get in the last word.

KWN: These are two good performances and recordings of The Enigma Variations, and I quite enjoyed listening to both of them. Both performances are fleet and spirited, which is the way I like to hear this music presented, and the timings in the individual movements are within a few seconds of each other in every case, and for some movements, identical. But enough beating around the bush -- I would definitely recommend the Naxos CD over the London, for three main reasons.

First, although the sound on both recordings is very good, the Naxos recording struck these ears as a bit more dynamic and more emphatic on the bottom end. The London recording -- pulled together from live concert performances -- is very good, but the Naxos studio recording is a bit better.

Second, I generally prefer CDs that feature filler pieces by the same composer over those that mix composers. The Naxos recording is filled out by Elgar's In the South and Coronation March, while the London recording features Kodaly's Variations on a Hungarian Folksong ("The Peacock") and Boris Blacher's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Yes, it was interesting to encounter the Blacher piece, one I had never heard before, but when I want to listen to Elgar, I want to listen to Elgar.

Third, and most crushingly in favor of the Naxos CD, I bought it brand new for $5.99, while a used copy of the London cost me more than that -- were it a brand-new copy, I would most likely have had to pay 14 or 15 bucks for it. The Naxos CD will stay in my collection, while the London has been relegated to the pile that will soon be on its way back to Used Kids.

TL: Oh, where to begin?

Should I just state at the start that George Hurst and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's version of The Enigma Variations on the budget Naxos label is a steal? And although the version with Georg Solti and the Vienna is good, there is no reason one should pay full price for the pleasure of hearing this fine British classic. Well I just said it. Do I have any regrets? No. This is why:

The last Naxos CD reviewed in this column featured the Bournemouth SO playing Vaughan Williams's Seventh Symphony. It is as good as practically any modern all digital classical recording on any label. It also is a fine performance that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good version of this work as well as an audiophile thrill. The Enigma Variations featured here is a recording made by the same orchestra in the same hall, but about a year earlier with a different engineering team. Yet the two recordings sound very similar. Perhaps this is because both are made in the same hall with the same orchestra. It may also be that there are some standard practices shared between the two engineers. Even though it does not feature the roaring bass pedals of a pipe organ, it nonetheless rivals the excellent sound of the Vaughan Williams CD.

In addition, compared to the Vienna recording, the Bournemouth seems to be recorded from a closer perspective, so there seems to be less hall sound. This more intimate recording has greater dynamics. The basses, in particular, are much more powerful. In fact, the entire orchestra has a more powerful sound. After listening to each of these CDs a few times, I thought I must be mistaken. I thought there was no way the Bournemouth could sound superior to the prestigious Vienna conducted by none other than Sir Georg. I tried turning up the volume when listening to the Solti recording, attempting to compensate for its more distant sound to no avail. In their defense, I guess the engineers at London wanted to showcase Vienna's infamous Musikverein. And why not? Many have called this hall an instrument itself. Although the sound of the hall is indeed featured prominently, recording it this way robbed much of the emotional intensity from the piece. Consequently, the Hurst/Bournemouth performance comes across as much more of a celebration of the grandeur of The Enigma Variations.

It has occurred to me that there is also a chance that Solti is responsible for the comparatively thin sound of the Vienna. It is said that in his later years Solti conducting style had mellowed -- that it wasn't as nearly as bold as it once was. If one listens to his recording of Mahler in the 1960s and '70s, the performances are so over the top and so authoritative, that it sometimes sounds as if the microphones were placed inside the double basses! We know they weren't, yet the way he muscles through the score makes him one of my, and many others' favorite conductors of such works. Was he past his prime on this recording of The Enigma Variations, made a little more than a year before his death?

At the Tower Records near me in Washington, D.C, the Solti/Vienna sells for $17.99 when not on sale (which is most of the time). I'm sure it can be bought for less if one shopped around. But how much less? Certainly not as low as the Naxos is offered (even when Tower sells it for a dollar more than its $5.99 list price). Even if they were priced the same, I would go for the Naxos. It's an admirable performance, plus, it's a better recording.
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Publication:Sensible Sound
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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