Elgar’s The Music Makers is well represented in the current catalog of recordings and online, despite the fact that it is very rarely performed here in the U.S. There are three readily available recordings, and all can be strongly recommended.
Sir Adrian Boult’s famous 1966 recording is generously coupled with the grandest of Elgar’s large-scale choral works, The Dream of Gerontius in a 2-CD set at mid-price (EMI 7243 5 66540 2 0), or online at YouTube. Dame Janet baker is the mezzo soprano soloist, and her obbligato over the Nimrod material from Elgar’s earlier Enigma Variations is truly stunning—on no other recording is this solo given such a profoundly musical and emotional reading. While the London Philharmonic Chorus sings with energy, there is some lack of tonal cohesiveness, especially in the tenors and basses when singing forte above the staff. And though the chorus is perhaps not as engaging as on other recordings, it is Boult’s complete and utterly convincing command of shape and direction of phrase that makes this recording an excellent choice. The London Philharmonic Orchestra plays with a real connection to this music and the sound is vintage EMI analog—warm with pleasing balances.
Perhaps the strongest performance in every aspect is Andrew Davis’ 1994 recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Jean Rigby, mezzo soloist. This is also the most recent release of this work (Teldec 92374, and online at YouTube). There is more minute detail in shaping of phrase in this performance than any of the other available versions—yet, this does not come at the expense of a grand and sweeping grasp of large-scale architecture. The chorus sings with great precision, excellent diction, a colorful tonal palette, and stunning control of dynamics. Jean Rigby combines a warmth or timbre similar to Dame Janet Baker’s—with just enough edge where the text requires it. This would be a strong first recommendation, except for the fact that the entire piece is one long, 39’47” track—there are no track divisions between sections! Very inconvenient. Of course, you could dub this down to a duplicate CD or Mini Disc and add your own track divisions for study purposes . . .
The late Bryden Thomson recorded The Music Makers for the Chandos label in 1992, and it is far and away the most sonically arresting recording of the work (Chandos CHAN 9022). There is tremendous detail and wide-ranging timbral color coupled here with a sense of atmosphere and space around the performers that is a bit lacking in the other two versions currently available. Thomson’s tempi are well-judged and there is a sense of energy and verve that is unique to this recording. However, though the large-scale shapes work well, there is not the same kind of attention to detail in intimate gestures as one hears in Davis’ reading—and Elgar’s score is full of indications for such gestures. The London Philharmonic Chorus’ singing is polished and energetic, and the ensemble is cleaner and more cohesive than in Boult’s version—though still not up to the standard of Davis’. Linda Finnie’s mezzo lacks some of the sweetness of Dame Janet Baker, but there is a creamy thickness to the voice that is very alluring in the bigger sections.
There is a fine performance online at YouTube that was recorded live at The Proms, with the BBC Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with mezzo-soprano soloist Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. In addition to the excitement of being a live performance at The Proms, there is wonderful cohesiveness in the romantic sweep — Slatkin controls arc and shape of phrase with wonderfully engaging drama. The BBC Chorus sings with polish and dynamism, and of course, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is a stunning soloist. Highly recommended!