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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
In the South (Alassio), Op. 50 (1904) [23:14]
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899) [22:56]
Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (1899) [31:48]
Gladys Ripley (contralto)
London Symphony Orchestra/George Weldon
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon (Enigma)
rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 1954; Kingsway Hall, London, 1953 (Enigma). ADD
SOMM SOMMCD073 [78:11]

 

Experience Classicsonline


George Weldon is probably little more than a name, if that, to younger collectors. He was far from being a “big” presence, spending a relatively short time tied to one orchestra (the CBSO) before being forced to leave by internal politics. After his departure he spent something of a peripatetic existence; he died on tour in
Cape Town in 1963. The booklet note suggests a certain glamour, stressing his love of fast cars and a myriad female admirers. Latter-day readers may raise an eyebrow at this; he was no jetsetter, rather a solid, dependable thoroughly musical conductor. 

This year marks the centenary of his birth and Somm have produced this welcome reissue of three of his key Elgar recordings. Elgar was a composer very dear to Weldon’s heart and he programmed his music frequently in the concert hall. The CD comprises the contents of two Columbia LPs recorded in 1953/54; there was also a collection of music by Holst, Bax and others which appeared on Dutton some years ago but currently this seems to be unavailable. 

In the South is one of Elgar’s richest pieces, bursting with invention and Mediterranean colour; it has to be admitted that Weldon, for all his Elgarian credentials, does not always summon up the exuberance the work ideally requires. Comparison with Boult’s contemporary LPO account, or indeed with the composer himself with the LSO in 1930, reveals a fire and drive that is rather absent from Weldon’s conscientious but earthbound performance. Weldon is effective enough in the softer passages - the Canto popolare is particularly memorable - but he sometimes allows the tempo to drag in the more dynamic portions of the score. Although Elgar’s marvellous scoring is faithfully projected, particularly in the “Roman aqueduct” passage, the performance would have benefited from a touch more drive throughout. 

The recording of Sea Pictures is valuable in that it allows us to hear one of the rare recordings of Gladys Ripley, who like Weldon was also born one hundred years ago. Like her great colleague Kathleen Ferrier, Ripley died young (in 1955) but had established herself as a stalwart of oratorio throughout the country, singing and recording a memorable Angel in Gerontius under Sir Malcolm Sargent. It’s good to hear her evenness of voice production and excellent diction, even if here and there a touch more temperament wouldn’t have gone amiss. There is an excess of politeness in her performance, and those familiar with the more unbuttoned approaches of Dame Janet Baker or Felicity Palmer may find Gladys Ripley a touch staid. But her affection for the music is never in doubt. 

Turning to the 1953 Philharmonia Enigma Variations, we immediately become aware that Weldon is operating on a different plane altogether. While remaining within the mainstream of Elgarian performing tradition, every variation is individually and imaginatively characterised while taking its place as part of the whole. The fast, nervous woodwind figurations in H.D.S.P. and Dorabella contrast effectively with the sonorous legato of the cellos in Richard Arnold or G.R.S. The delicacy of Ysobel is made to contrast with the bluff heartiness of Troyte or G.R.S., and the recording allows us to hear Elgar’s scoring to full advantage. Weldon does not see Nimrod as the climax of the work, and gives the most famous variation an eloquent yet understated performance. The Finale is seen, quite rightly, as the proper culmination of the piece, and brings the disc to a rip-roaring conclusion. One of the finest performances of the Variations I have heard. 

In the South and Sea Pictures were recorded, according to the LSO’s discography, at Abbey Road in February 1954; in the same week the LSO adjourned to Kingsway Hall with Anthony Collins for their famous Decca recording of Falstaff. Collins was able to extract playing of considerably more passion from the LSO. It’s a pity that room could not have been found for Weldon’s Philharmonia Cockaigne; I recall from my father’s old MFP LP that it was quite superlative.

The sound in all three works is remarkably full, rich and resonant, having been remastered by the original producer, Brian Culverhouse - who also contributes a short note on Weldon to the booklet. In Sea Pictures and Enigma the organ makes a welcome and clearly audible appearance. 

Three fine, mainstream Elgar performances from the 1950s; In the South and Sea Pictures just lacking the last degree of imagination, the Enigma Variations something more special altogether.

Ewan McCormick 

see also Review by Rob Barnett 


 


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