This compilation - potentially a worthwhile budget package and plausible
tribute to Bryden Thomson - collectively constitutes one of
the less salubrious examples of the Chandos recording philosophy
and its resultant "house sound". One appreciates
the producers' desire to use as few microphones as possible,
and thus to avoid the elaborate mixing and rebalancing after-the-fact
such as characterized late analogue multi-track technique. The
result in too many cases, however, is a wash of excessive resonance
that militates against clarity, when it doesn't make listening
Such is the case with these recordings, drawn from at least two separate
previous releases. On first hearing the symphonies - recorded
in the notoriously difficult All Saints' Church - the tutti
passages sound impressively rich. The main lines (themes and
bass) are clear, true, but everything else gets lost in a pervasive
ambient ooze. The pronounced overhang produces congested climaxes
- wasn't digital recording supposed to eliminate this problem?
- and imparts a harsh edge to the heavy brass. Even when everyone's
not playing, the acoustic spoils the effect: the First Symphony's
second subject (disc 1, track 1, 5:10), concentrated in a higher texture than the first, ought to sound
airier than it does here, because of the resonance. The music's
quieter, more delicate passages are lovely, but there aren't
nearly enough of them.
Students of Elgar will certainly find the performances of interest,
because of Thomson's sure command of every element in these
sprawling scores - not a small accomplishment, when you consider
the composer's intricate contrapuntal working-out of his themes.
But the playing could use more point and focus. In the First
Symphony, especially, there's rather a lot of generalized, on-the-string
playing; and we hear some soggy, "ploppy" chording
in that symphony's first movement and at the climax of the Rondo
in the second. Perhaps more rehearsal was needed - it simply
sounds as if ensemble and conductor were not yet on the same
wavelength. The principal woodwinds, at least, play sensitively
- more than one yearning, lyrical clarinet solo moves the spirit
- and the engineering doesn't unduly befog their moments.
In the First Symphony, Thomson's tempi aren't too slow, but they frequently
sound cautious. The violins pick at their sextuplets at 20:43
of the first movement, and saw away, note by note, at their
scherzo figurations; the overall effect in these two movements
is perhaps unintentionally heavy. The seamless transition into
the Adagio, on the other hand, represents Thomson's precise
control at his best, and that movement is the highlight of the
performance. Most conductors, striving for breadth and rapt
stillness, neglect the music's cantabile element; Thomson
makes the music flow and sing - it's one of the finest
renditions I've ever heard. The Finale makes the right expressive
moves, but the first theme-group, perhaps because of its slow-motion
start, never registers as such, leaving the shape of the piece
hard to fathom.
The Second Symphony, recorded just a week later, is better. The introductory
motto has a pleasing, shapely surge at a dignified tread; the
second theme is searching and tender. The opening of the ruminative
Larghetto is flexibly shaped, and its rhapsodic structure
builds slowly and logically; the Rondo's quirkiness comes
across nicely. The finale sings with assurance, but the little
off-beat interjections keep things from being too serene. The
acoustic again blurs the musical outlines - you have to take
some of the first movement's running figures pretty much on
faith, while the Rondo's climax turns completely opaque
at the entry of the percussion.
As for the fill-ups, the waltzes that dominate the long-neglected Sanguine
Fan ballet have the surging contours of Tchaikovsky's waltzes,
yet their hearty pride is unmistakably Elgar's - quite a novel
hybrid. Thomson's rather stately pacing of the Froissart
overture brings out the underlying grandeur of the broad themes,
but the softer string playing is recessed in the resonant backwash.
I can't really recommend this set to the general collector: even were
Thomson's musical intentions more consistently realized, the
bloated engineering puts paid to the whole enterprise. I'd suggest
instead the midprice accounts of Solti (in a "Double Decca"
issue) or Boult (EMI British Composers single discs, deserving
of a "Doublefforte" reissue), according to your taste.
Stephen Francis Vasta