It is striking that two of the true classics in English orchestral music were composed within the short space of some fifteen years around the turn of the previous century. Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations have charmed as well as fascinated listeners since the first performance in 1899. In 14 remarkably diverse variations Elgar demonstrates his compositional mastery while creating miniature portraits of his closest friends, as well as of his wife and himself. By turns gentle, idyllic, tempestuous and boisterous, the pieces – which often run seamlessly into each other – nevertheless make up a coherent whole, like a group portrait taken during a country weekend. As for the enigma of the title, Elgar – who loved puzzles – maintained that another melody ‘went with’ the theme, and musicologists have searched for the answer ever since, without success. In 1916 Gustav Holst completed another set of musical character sketches – his suite The Planets, in seven movements. These have little to do with astronomy and even less with the Roman deities whose names they carry. Holst was rather inspired by astrology and the suite actually concerns human character as influenced by the planets. The concept – like that of Elgar's variations – provides for a variety of moods and expressions, and in his score Holst took full advantage of these possibilities. To achieve this he made use of a large orchestra including much percussion, two harps, celesta, organ, two sets of timpani. He also included parts for certain unusual instruments such as bass flute, bass oboe and tenor tuba, and – in the final movement – a female chorus. Performing the programme in the warm acoustics of Bergen's Grieg Hall, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton give it their all in this sonic spectacular.
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