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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55 (1907-8) [57:02]
The Sanguine Fan, Op. 81* (1917) [19:27]
Froissart, concert overture, Op. 19+ (1890/1901) [14:28]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op. 63 (1909-11) [61:23]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. All Saints' Church, Tooting, October 1985, *January 1988; St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, April 1991
CHANDOS CHAN 241-21 [76:40 + 76:00]

 

 

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 actively unpleasant. 

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

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