Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
In the South (Alassio), Op. 50 (1904) [23:06]
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899)* [23:01]
Chanson de Matin, Op. 15 No 2** [3:33]
HANDEL arr. ELGAR Overture in D minor (from Chandos Anthem No 2) [5:36]
Gladys Ripley (contralto)
London Symphony Orchestra/George Weldon
rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 1, 19 February 1954; *26 February 1954; **11 December 1953. ADD

The two major works in this collection were also issued in 2008 by Somm Records. I haven’t heard that transfer but the performances were welcomed in these pages by Rob Barnett, who described them in his review as “fine idiosyncratic Elgar”. Andrew Rose has made these transfers for Pristine, working from what he describes as “excellent near-mint copies expertly transferred by Edward Johnson from his private collection.” I’m unable to compare them with the Somm offering but I found the present transfers clear and truthful. A satisfying amount of detail is reported.

On the evidence of these performances George Weldon (1908-1963) seems to have been a sound, reliable and intelligent Elgar interpreter. His account of In the South is a good one and he gets a very positive response from the LSO. That said, it has to be admitted that his performance lacks the sheer impetuosity and electric charge of Constantin Silvestri’s classic Bournemouth recording (EMI). Since In the South is Elgar’s most Straussian score the surge that Silvestri brings to the music is highly appropriate – and unforgettable – as is the delicacy and warmth with which he invests the more reflective pages. Weldon can’t quite match that level of intensity but his is still an estimable performance and it’s clear that he has the measure of the work.

This was the second recording of Sea Pictures by Gladys Ripley (1908-1955) and it was made less than two years before her untimely death from cancer in December 1955. She first recorded the cycle in 1946, also with Weldon conducting. That recording, which I haven’t heard, was issued on CD a few years ago by Pearl and it was admired by Jonathan Woolf, though he decided that Miss Ripley’s account didn’t displace the Janet Baker/Barbirolli account in his affections. If this 1954 performance is similar to that from 1946 then I know what he means. Miss Ripley is, indeed, not as intense as Dame Janet – and Weldon certainly doesn’t match the red-blooded fervour of Glorious John. However, it’s worth making one point, namely that Miss Ripley’s voice is probably much closer to the type of voice that Elgar expected to hear in these songs. After all, they were written expressly for Dame Clara Butt, who premičred them at the Norwich Festival of 1899. Like Dame Clara, Gladys Ripley was a genuine contralto and the additional tonal depth of that type of voice adds an extra dimension to the songs, which may not always be experienced nowadays when, with the seeming demise of the contralto voice, Sea Pictures has become, almost faut de mieux, the preserve of the mezzo-soprano voice.

I referred to the tonal depth of the contralto voice. This shouldn’t be taken as implying that Miss Ripley lacks the top notes: she has the whole compass of these songs comfortably within her voice. She may not offer as intense an experience as Dame Janet Baker but she brings warmth and a degree of nobility to the music that I appreciate very much. One other point needs to be made: the fact that this is a contralto voice doesn’t in any way mean that there’s any “plumminess” about the sound. Miss Ripley sings clearly and articulates the words very well indeed. This is certainly a version that all Elgar aficionados will wish to hear, not least because Weldon accompanies with consideration and understanding.

To complete the disc we have an affectionate reading of Chanson de Matin and a most enjoyable traversal of Elgar’s exuberant Handel arrangement.

These are very good, reliable Elgar performances and it’s good that they’ve been made available once again in fine transfers.

John Quinn