Fourteen People and a Dog
Brits in Rome,
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
During the same week, two of Rome's major symphonic and chamber music institutions — the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and the Accademia Filarmonica Romana — devoted their programs to British composers and artists. This is quite singular because although British conductors, singers and instrumentalists often visit Italy's capital city, performances of British composers' works are few and far between.
In short, Mark Elder conducted three concerts in the huge Sala Santa Cecilia (2,800 seats) between 22 and 25 March 2014 — I was in the audience on 24 March — where the most important part of the program was Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations Op 36; in the first part, we listened to the rarely performed Richard Strauss symphonic poem Macbeth and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op 43 (with outstanding twenty-two-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov). On 27 March, in the eighteenth century Teatro Argentina, Ian Bostridge presented a recital with Julius Drake at the piano, featuring Benjamin Britten's Winter Words Op 52, following Franz Schubert's Winterreise and Charles Ives' Memories.
The story is told how Elgar, returning home from giving violin lessons, sat down at the piano and, to unwind, began improvising. His wife, Alice, commented favorably on the tune that emerged and Elgar responded by suggesting that some of their friends might like it. Out of that spontaneous exchange grew the idea of the Enigma Variations, the work that finally secured Elgar's reputation as a composer of national, even international, standing. It remains one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire. In all, fourteen people and a dog are featured in the variations.
There are two enigmas underlying the variations. The first and more readily solved is the identity of each of the 'friends pictured within'. Only the thirteenth variation has given rise to speculation that Elgar's use of asterisks rather than initials or a pet name may hide the true identity of the subject, possibly an old flame of Elgar's who had recently emigrated from Britain. The speculation is intriguing but the mystery can never be satisfactorily solved, for Elgar revealed the identity of the tune to no-one and took the answer with him to the grave.
Musically, no introduction is needed. Apart from the first Andante, which has attained fame as much outside the concert hall as film music, the Variations on an Original Theme remains the most widely performed of all Elgar's works while the ninth variation — Nimrod — is arguably the most moving and best loved excerpt in the whole of the repertoire. Mark Elder provided an engrossing reading of the score by making each character portrayed in the Variations, including the dog, almost visible. Of course, in certain variations, Elder was, at the same time, sentimental and witty, as one would expect from a Brit. He and the orchestra were warmly applauded.
Ian Bostridge provided an extremely witty performance of Britten's Winter Words. He is not only an excellent tenor but also a very good actor and can enchant his audience with the manner in which he makes real stage theatre, even when singing lieder.
After Schubert's melancholic Winterreise and Ives' very American Memories, the audience was really enthralled by Bostridge who was asked to provide an encore. He obliged, smiling.
Copyright © 10 April 2014 Giuseppe Pennisi,