The “Enigma” Variations was written as a set of musical character sketches of Edward Elgar’s friends, with the first variation cast as a tender tribute to his wife and the finale as a rousing self-portrait. The “Enigma” is believed to be a “hidden” theme, one that is never actually played. Theories abound as to what the Enigma theme might be, such as the tune for Auld Lang Syne or perhaps a link to the string quartets of Beethoven. The possibility has even been suggested that no such mystery theme exists and that Elgar put forth the idea as a way to create interest in the work and have a bit of fun at the same time. Martin Bookspan and several other writers believe that if you forget about discovering any hidden theme and instead experience Elgar’s masterpiece on its own merits you will find more than enough enjoyment from the music itself.
A preferred recording of Bookspan’s is from conductor Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony Orchestra. The reissue is paired with another of Bookspan’s favorites, Monteux’s reading of Dvorak’s Symphony Number Seven. Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra provide a stunning performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations that places it first among the plethora of modern choices. The recording is from 2006 and also includes Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes plus a sparkling version of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. An even more recent release of the Enigma Variations is from Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. It is a sonic powerhouse.
The final three symphonies of Antonín Dvorák are, respectively, an undervalued masterpiece (Number Seven), a melodic joy (Number Eight), and a work of enduring popularity (Number Nine).
The Seventh Symphony is acclaimed by many as Dvorák’s finest, though it is probably the least often performed of the three. When you have the chance to hear Dvorák’s Seventh played in concert by a skilled ensemble you should not let the opportunity pass you by. As mentioned above, Monteux’s recording is a good vintage choice. The complete set of Dvorák symphonies from the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra and the fine, though himself undervalued, Austrian conductor Otmar Suitner is a worthy, budget-priced selection. You should note, however, that the bargain is somewhat offset by the absence of any liner notes; you’ll have to rely on other sources for information about the music and the performers.
The Eighth Symphony by Dvorák is a charmer, full of engaging, Bohemian melodies. Martin Bookspan describes it as “one of the loveliest, most spontaneous works in the repertoire.” Bookspan favors a recording from legendary Dvorak conductor István Kertész. The reissue of the Kertész performance includes his reading of Dvorák Ninth. The modern recording of Dvorák’s Eighth from conductor Claus Peter Flor and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is a winner and you’ll also be gaining fine interpretations of two orchestral works by Dvorák: The Golden Spinning Wheel and his Scherzo Capriccioso.
And that brings us to what is one of the most popular symphonies ever written, Dvorák’s Ninth, nicknamed “From the New World” and often simply called Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony. The sobriquet arises from the fact that the symphony was composed and premiered in the United States.
The recording of Dvorák’s New World Symphony made by conductor Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic is one of Bookspan’s recommendations. For a more recent performance, consider the Czech conductor Zdeněk Mácal and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, a two-CD set that also features Dvorák’s beautiful setting of the Requiem Mass.
If you don’t find the various pairings of works to your liking, you might choose instead a collection of Dvorák’s final three symphonies from conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Made between 1958 and 1960, these recordings are each recommended by Bookspan. I came to know and love the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies by Dvorák through individual releases of the Szell recordings on vinyl, and I’m glad to see they have been reissued as a two-CD set. They represent George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the top of their game. Other performances may come close but will never surpass them in quality, and they will always have a special place in my heart.
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