Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Music Makers, Op. 69 (1912) [39:05]
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899) [24:47]
Linda Finnie (contralto),
London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra / Bryden Thomson
rec. 1991, St Jude’s Church, Central Square, London. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN9022 [64:04]
The two works here lend themselves ideally to a coupling on CD, although the only other instances I am aware of are the very fine recording by Hickox with Felicity Palmer and the Naxos issue with Sarah Connolly. Of course, Sea Pictures has been recorded by many great mezzos and contraltos, beginning with the first performer, Dame Clara Butt, but for many listeners their introductions to both pieces were the classic versions by Dame Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli, in Sea Pictures, and The Music Makers with Sir Adrian Boult. There are many other great interpretations, but most of us are so hopelessly imprinted by hers that, despite what increasingly sounds like dated recording quality, it is hard to listen objectively to any other accounts; her recordings remain definitive.
However, these are indubitably lovely versions: I particularly relish the deep timbre, exemplary diction, seamless breath control and evenness of production of Linnie Finnie’s lovely contralto. Bryden Thomson provides her with deeply sensitive and detailed accompaniments, never rushed and perhaps a tad ponderous for those accustomed to Barbirolli’s brisker manner but suffused with emotion and greatly enhanced by the clarity of the digital sound. Finnie has the power when it is required but frequently employs dynamics shaded down to a ppp; she also has no difficulty with the higher-lying passages which troubled singers such as Kathleen Ferrier
No-one could pretend that Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ode The Music Makers is poetry of the highest order but it reflected the conflicts in Elgar’s soul and inspired him to compose a fine work, none the worse for its plethora of allusions to his previous works: the “Nimrod” theme from the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, the Violin Concerto, the First and Second Symphonies, “Novissima hora est” from Gerontius, and quotations from Rule Britannia and La Marseillaise when referencing Britain’s imperial past. In fact, that’s the point: is it a kind of retrospective and summing up of his life’s work to that point, whereas Sea Pictures was written shortly after Elgar’s first big success, the Enigma Variations. It is given a full-throated performance here; balances between the orchestra and voices is excellent, the organ is audible, the words clear and Finnie’s contribution again deeply felt and moving.
There is another fine recording of The Music Makers by Andrew Davis with Jean Rigby made back in 1993, coupled with some miniature pieces, but this, alongside the Hickox on EMI, is the most attractive one of this particular pairing.