Stephen Johnson
BBC Music Magazine
October 2016

Once in a while, a performance comes along that focuses understanding of a familiar work in a new way—or recapture an insight that might have been lost. That's how it was for me with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's Enigma Variations. It isn't just the sumptuous but finely layered orchestral textures, or the commanding architectural coherence, that make this exceptional. Mind you those are impressive enough: 'Nimrod' has the grandeur and fervour of a great Bruckner slow movement, but then the following 'Dorabella' is no light-as-gossamer throwaway but an exquisite, beautifully shaped contrast. How right Elgar was to place these two variations side-by-side! In fact, Brabbins' performance as a whole is a reminder of what a masterpiece of construction Enigma truly is: not just a beautifully assembled gallery of portraits, but a sequence building with grand inevitability to the finale.

What's truly revelatory however is the way each variation seems to 'speak'. In the theme itself—on the face of it, a simple tune-plus-accompaniment-inner parts and tiny touches of accentuation emerge with natural clarity though not detracting from the melody's eloquent phrasing. A rich assemblage of voices follows: the distinct voices of Elgar's friends, of Elgar himself (the theme), reacting to them tenderly, playfully, admiringly, and in the process being enriched and enlarged by them. The concluding self-portrait then seems to say, 'This is what you have made of me', best of all in the theme's final extended lyrical flowering—and how wonderful to have the organ so solidly present too.

Enigma is the stand-out experience here, but In the South is compelling and captivating too—another crucial stage on the road to the self-mastery and self-revelation that reached a pinnacle in the Frist Symphony. As in the Enigma Variations, Brabbins shows that—as Elgar himself did in his own recordings—ardour and subtlety can be two sides of the same complicated coin.

The three wartime morale-boosters that follow are of much more variable quality. Le drapeau belge is a bit of a plod, for all the work Brabbins, the orchestra and reciter Florence Daguerre de Hureaux put into it, but Une voix dans le désert contains some fine music, at its best eerily or poignantly responsive to the words. The song Pleading has its first recording here as a purely orchestral piece—a miniature, certainly, but a very touching one. Here, as so often in this collection, the voice is distinctly, paradoxically Eglarian: direct yet reserved, simple yet profoundly complex. Recordings are excellent throughout: bright, clear and warm all at the same time.