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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Concert Overture “In the South” op.50
[23:14] (1)
Sea Pictures op. 37 [22:56] (2)
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) op. 36 [31:48] (3)
Gladys Ripley (contralto) (2)
London Symphony Orchestra (1, 2), Philharmonia Orchestra (3)/George Weldon
rec. 1953, Kingsway Hall (3), 1954, Abbey Road Studio no. 1 (1, 2)
SOMM SOMMCD073 [78:11]
Experience Classicsonline


The generally warm welcome given to the reissue of these semi-forgotten recordings has included some reservations over the slowish tempi for “In the South”. I should like to start, though, with “Enigma”, since this is a much-recorded work in which we are used to hearing a wide range of interpretations.

After noting the finely-shaded, expressive string-playing in the first part of the theme, we find that, with the change to the major, Weldon makes no attempt to move the music onwards. The wind phrasing is full and it is the precisely observed crescendos and diminuendos that prevent the music from stagnating. The first variation, too, concentrates on breadth. When the first of the faster variations comes we note – and this is a feature of all the faster music – that, while Weldon is not exactly slow, he takes as his basis a tempo in which the notes can all be played with brilliantly clear articulation. In the gentler variations, on the other hand, he insists on warm tone and expressive phrasing even if this means that pianos are slightly marked up to mezzo-pianos.

All this adds up to a rather different style from the two major Elgar interpreters of those days, Boult and Barbirolli. The former had relaxed somewhat since his astonishingly driven, Toscanini-like pre-war recording, but his was still a volatile “Enigma” at least until the 1960s, the swift variations letting fly even at the expense of clear articulation, while at the other extreme he had an extraordinary ability to achieve rapt sotto voce playing from the strings while maintaining relatively flowing tempi. Yet Weldon seems equally distant from Barbirolli, apart from the fact that the latter’s Pye recording of “Enigma” shows that in those days he still favoured a surprisingly brusque manner. There is no risk of narcissism in Weldon’s slower tempi, or of self-indulgence. Rather, he has the melodies sung nobly from the heart, always warm, never fussy. Had he had more time, I suggest Weldon would have established a third interpretative way, one to stand alongside Boult and Barbirolli and with a more definite profile of his own than Sargent. The finale is perhaps the best illustration of his methods. It does not surge hedonistically, but nor does it become mired in patriotic pomp. It is, quite simply, noble.

Enjoyment of this is immensely helped by a recording that is astonishingly good for its date. This is all the more notable when not all that long ago I was listening to Beulah’s transfer of the Sargent recording set down the same year in the same venue and found that the sound quality definitely prevented full appreciation of the performance. However, Beulah were working – so far as I know – from LP copies, while Somm have been allowed to re-master the original EMI tapes. Furthermore, this has been done “as a tribute to a remarkable conductor and a fine friend” by Brian B. Culverhouse, the original producer of many of Weldon’s recordings, including the other works here – “Enigma” was  Walter Legge production. Maybe an equally fine job will be done on the Sargent one day.

Having taken stock of Weldon as an Elgar interpreter we can turn to his “In the South”, which is about three-and-a-half minutes longer than the Boult performances available. The opening has grandeur rather than elation but, as is becoming clear, this is how Weldon sees Elgar. At first I missed the surge of the best Boult, both here and in the ensuing lyrical music, but I came to appreciate Weldon’s sheer warmth. The Roman legions passage is extraordinary, its grinding slowness and pitiless power carrying Mahlerian weight, even a suggestion of Shostakovich. Whereas the moonlight serenade, true to form, is expressed with heartfelt warmth rather than Boult’s hushed tenderness. I have a particular love of Boult’s final recording – and I continue to find the famous Silvestri brash and over-drilled – but Weldon seems to me a wholly valid alternative.

Gladys Ripley was famously the contralto soloist in the first Sargent “Gerontius”. Nine years later I find her throbbing vibrato detracts from her basic steadiness. Compared with Janet Baker – a cruel thing to do but the Baker record exists – her voice seems a big but blunt instrument. I don’t remember finding such problems with her Angel in “Gerontius” – but I don’t have it to hand for comparison – and I wonder if her voice production had slipped backwards in the intervening period. Janet Baker seems to produce so much more with a lot less effort. Also, while Ripley enunciates her words clearly, she does not produce any of those memorable colourings with which a great singer wraps music and words around our hearts. It is possible to find the Baker/Barbirolli version excessively lugubrious, but any alternative would have to be sung at least as well. While not disliking Ripley, I got more enjoyment from Weldon’s handling of the orchestra.

Those same commentators who found “In the South” on the slow side welcomed “Sea Pictures” as a refreshing return to basics compared with the “indulgent” Baker/Barbirolli. Oddly enough, the timings – checked in my computer – reveal that in three out of five songs Baker/Barbirolli are fractionally faster.

 

I

II

III

IV

V

Baker/Barbirolli

05:02

02:06

06:20

04:11

06:03

Ripley/Weldon

05:07

01:43

06:46

03:20

06:00

It can only be supposed that Barbirolli’s espressivo style can seem slower than it is, while Weldon’s nobilmente manner leads the ear onwards and seems quicker.

The interesting difference is in the fourth song, “Where corals lie”. Here I side with Baker/Barbirolli. While Ripley/Weldon expand sumptuously where Elgar marks allargando the basic tempo is rather bright and perky, more like Coleridge-Taylor than Elgar. Baker/Barbirolli find a stillness and mystery which gives the music an added dimension. It may be that the Ripley/Weldon tempo was “traditional”, but in reality Elgar’s marked tempo of crotchet = 56 is slower still. If observed – and it would require remarkable breath-control for the long phrases not to be broken up – the song would have a gravity that Baker/Barbirolli’s crotchet = c.66 at least hints at. Ripley/Weldon at around crotchet = 80 are getting on for double the marked tempo. Even if some sort of tradition had grown up for doing it this way, can the marked tempo really be that wrong?

In spite of some reservations over “Sea Pictures” this disc gives us an important glimpse of a conductor who was possibly on course to become a major Elgar interpreter, though without more recorded evidence – no symphonies or “Gerontius” – we are rather left guessing. His LP collection of lighter works – “Cockaigne”, the two most popular Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the Serenade and the “Chansons” – was once highly regarded (World Record Club T/ST296) and might fill out the picture a little. Added value comes with Christopher Morley’s résumé of the conductor’s career and notes on the music, and Brian B. Culverhouse’s affectionate memoir. Only the cover photo puzzles me. Morley begins with the following portrait:

A cigarette clamped permanently to his lower lip, and with his penchant for sleek fast cars, George Weldon had something of a glamour-boy image, and his fan-club of adoring women was huge.

The man in the photo looks like a crusty prep-school Latin master around retiring age – maybe even Mr. Chips himself. Young ladies of the 21st Century are unlikely to buy the disc on the strength of this.

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Rob Barnett and Ewen McCormick

 

 


 




 


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