Sometimes I think that particular composers really enjoyed having a tease with their audiences. Would we think any the less of Elgar’s “Variations for Full Orchestra” (its original title) without the attached nickname of Enigma? Almost certainly not: it is an extraordinarily fine piece of orchestration. However, the composer’s repeated references to the “dark saying” at the heart of the work have kept the guessing game going for more than a century now, long after the named ciphers were revealed. Claims have been made for Martin Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg and the Welsh marching song Men of Harlech. One US cryptologist is even convinced that Elgar’s theme is a counterpoint to Liszt’s Les Préludes. Does any of this really matter? The composer is probably laughing his head off at all our attempts at demystification.

Jamie Phillips
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

What certainly does matter in these musical portraits is that characterisation is sufficiently varied. In this performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jamie Phillips there was broad sensitive shaping, for instance in Nimrod and B.G.N., as well as much incidental detail to savour. H.D.S-P. came across as a slightly tetchy and cantankerous soul, R.B.T. as engagingly avuncular with gentle cooing from the clarinets, and Dorabella was graced by a delicate, spry oboe, a finely pointed viola and a gruff bassoon to add wry counterpoint. Phillips stressed the boundless energy in some of the more unbuttoned variations: Troyte was driven at whiplash speed with mighty timpani and roaring trombones while the closing E.D.U., Elgar’s tribute to himself, was like a young skateboarder, powering mercilessly across the parcours.

On the debit side Phillips’ predilection for brightness and brilliance meant that the quality of wistfulness, always one important element in Elgar’s writing, was in short supply. Some of the darker moments were hardly hinted at: there is an especially spine-chilling moment in the penultimate variation where the side drum can sound almost like a death rattle. Here it was virtually inaudible.

From time to time there is a need to draw a veil over an unsatisfactory first half. This was the case here. The four movements in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no. 1 may well have suffered from insufficient rehearsal time. Morning arrived very quickly without much radiance and then daybreak somewhat curiously wound itself down to an approximation of dusk. The Death of Åse lacked refinement; nor was there much atmospheric sparkle in Anitra’s Dance. The trolls sounded more like clodhopping peasants in the concluding movement: In the Hall of the Mountain King ultimately lacked the necessary menace.

Listening to this performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor reminded me of those car journeys where an inexperienced driver has forgotten to release the handbrake. The moderate speeds merely emphasised the excessive caution in presentation. Without a compelling narrative line you soon become aware of those bridges or transitions frequently cited as one of the structural flaws in this work: seams are then mercilessly exposed. Despite the clarity of articulation and a mostly crystalline palette of colours, there simply wasn’t enough personality in this reading by Vanessa Benelli Mosell. One can forgive the occasional mishits and incomplete octave leaps, but Tchaikovsky without passion and also poetry in the central movement is only half the deal. Over wide stretches I felt that both Phillips and Benelli Mosell were inhabiting different worlds. The conductor seemed keen to press ahead and build swift climaxes while the soloist sometimes pulled in the opposite direction. This mismatch was most evident in the Finale where both fell out of step with each other. Even great warhorses occasionally grow lame.