ELGAR: Chanson de Nuit, Op. 15, No. 1; Chanson de Matin, Op. 15, No. 2; GOUNOD: Ballet Music from Faust; GRIEG: Norwegian Dances, Op. 35; Peer Gynt Suite No. 2; BACH: Sleepers Awake (arr. Bantock) – City of Birmingham Orchestra/George Weldon
Historic-Recordings HRCD 0027, 63:00 [www.historic-recordings.co.uk] ****:
George Weldon (1908-1963) assumed the leadership of the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1943, following Leslie Heward, and instituting a strong rebuilding program. Relatively unrepresented on modern sound recordings, Weldon survives by way of his Tchaikovsky ballet scores for EMI and his collaboration with soloists like Robert Casadesus and Benno Moiseiwitsch. This collation of orchestral works traverses 1945-1950 and adds several elusive selections to his catalogue.
The two Elgar “chansons” project the requisite ingenuous sweetness, strong work in the Birmingham strings. The Faust I find relatively understated, a salon conception of the ballet, studied and surprisingly intimate. It achieves more aggression as it proceeds. The melodic line–especially in the waltz sequences– remains quite fluid, the transfers the soul of seamless quietude. The woodwinds do their fair share, especially in the principal flute. The tempos in the faster sections resemble those of Beecham, even savoring a touch of that maestro’s ferocity.
The Grieg set of Norwegian Dances conveys the same internal logic and color propulsion that all British conductors delight in–from Beecham to Groves to Barbirolli–the combination of folk idioms and dynamic inner sonority in ternary form. The opening D Minor rushes at us with Scottish, Northern menace; the familiar A Major (Allegro tranquillo e grazioso) lulls us until its middle section, all quicksilver thunderstorms. The G Major suggests a jubilant festival, a step away from Rimsky-Korsakov. The trumpets and strings each bask in their moments. The last dance returns to D Minor, a Northern ballade in the manner of Sibelius. Trumpets, strings, winds, and basses converge in a splendid halling, the orchestration by the way, is by Hans Sitt – a member of the Brodsky Quartet. The 1891 Peer Gynt Suite No. 2 contains the two laments, by Ingrid and Solveg. The anguish Weldon elicits from his Birmingham strings over brass and tympani ostinati pays the price of admission. A brilliant pungent Arabian Dance (March) ensues, with haunted work in the Birmingham violas and a timbrel sound from the triangle and tambourine. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming–Storm at Sea projects all the vibrant energies of Wagner without the dogma. Solveg’s Song might invoke the Book of Ruth, the devotion that pardons even the Prodigal Son.
Weldon concludes with Sleepers Awake, the Bach chorale of noble beauty and immense counterpoint. Strings and brass weave a majestic line, unbroken, richly layered as any sumptuous organ diapason. This is Weldon in the Stokowski mode, and that comparison sells itself.