Building a Library
Malcolm Hayes selects the best recordings of Elgar’s Enigma Variations; plus what to hear next
The first performance of Enigma Variations, conducted by Hans Richter on 19 June 1899 in London, made Elgar’s name virtually overnight as England’s finest composer since Purcell. He had come up with a unique creation – a sequence of musical portraits of his wife, his friends and himself, all based on a melody representing, as he later said, ‘the loneliness of the artist’. Although the subtitle ‘Enigma’ was only added before the premiere by Elgar’s publisher, the composer suggested that ‘over the whole set another and larger “theme” goes, but is not played’. Endless musicological detective work has failed to turn up a counter-melody that ‘fits’. This must be because there isn’t one: as the Elgar authority Michael Kennedy suggested, the composer was thinking of the work’s broader, abstract theme – of friendship and love, set amid the social scene in and around his Worcestershire home.