Edward Johnson writes… Stokowski championed many living composers during his long career and Elgar was among them. In 1911 he gave the US premiere of the Second Symphony but the local Cincinnati critic, who was extremely hostile to Stokowski, gave the work the thumbs down by dismissing it as “pleasant but not great, nor in any sense convincing.”
Stokowski conducted the Enigma Variations for the first time in 1912 in an all-British programme. True to form, the Cincinnati Enquirer’s music critic considered the entire concert “unappealing and commonplace” with Stanford’s ‘Irish’ Symphony being singled out as “uninspired.” Still, Stokowski thought highly of the Enigma Variations and wrote to Elgar in 1929 to thank him for the “nobility and beauty” of his creation.
Stokowski finally got round to recording the Enigma Variations in 1972 at the age of ninety when he visited Prague to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. Unfortunately, he was injured during the journey and missed the first rehearsal. However, he insisted on carrying on and the concert was recorded ‘live’ by Decca. The work was completely new to the CPO but it gave a highly praised performance, despite having a frail maestro on the podium.
The following year, he repeated the Enigma Variations in the Royal Albert Hall with the New Philharmonia, an orchestra that knew the work back to front. As the BBC had chosen not to broadcast it, Stokowski’s assistant arranged for it to be surreptitiously taped on a stereo cassette machine, purely for archival reasons. This time the critics were unanimous: “This performance of the ‘Enigma Variations’ is certainly the finest I have ever heard,” wrote Martin Cooper in the Daily Telegraph, his words being echoed by Edward Greenfield in The Guardian who described as a “most gorgeously resonant performance.” How lucky we are that Stokowski’s assistant arranged for it to be immortalised and that a twenty-four-hour, world-wide audience can now hear it on YouTube!