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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38 (1900)
Philip Langridge (tenor); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto); Alastair Miles (bass)
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 26 November 1997
Presenter: James Naughtie. Video director: Bob Coles
NTSC 16:9. Region Code: 2,3,4,5.Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
WARNER MUSIC VISION 3984-22351-2 [110:00]
 


This performance was given in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London in celebration of the tercentenary of the building or, more properly, of the opening of the east aisle for worship, as James Naughtie points out in his introduction. The location is visually impressive but it also brings one crucial disadvantage. This is the exceptionally resonant acoustic. To some extent the engineers have succeeded in taming the resonance but the acoustic certainly at times seems to have impacted the performance of the music. I found myself wondering frequently just how much detail was audible to most of the audience on the night itself.
 
During his distinguished tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sir Andrew Davis made a number of fine CDs of Elgar’s orchestral music. However, so far as I’m aware, with the exception of Music Makers, he didn’t record any of the choral works so this release fills an important gap in his discography. Davis conducts the work with a fine sense of drama and with evident affection and understanding. He paces the music adroitly and I was pretty consistently comfortable with the speeds he adopts. I felt that in the chorus “Be merciful” in Part One his tempo was just a touch on the fast side, which meant that what should be an implacable tread in the orchestral bass line didn’t quite register as such. On the other hand, and much more importantly, he handles the Big Moments very successfully indeed. I was particularly glad to find that he keeps a firm grip on “Praise to the Holiest”, not allowing the accelerando towards the end to get out of hand, as I fear Benjamin Britten does in his Decca recording of the work, where the end of that chorus sounds gabbled. Such control of his forces in a vast acoustic like St. Paul’s can’t have been easy but, as I’ve noticed before, Davis is very clear in his direction and the BBC forces will have known him well.
 
The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays very well for him. I particularly relished the luminous and tranquil Prelude to Part Two, which Davis shapes affectionately, without ever dawdling. The much more substantial Prelude to Part One is very impressive also. The BBC Symphony Chorus, too, is on excellent form. The Demon’s Chorus – not my favourite bit of the work – is sung with great bite and the choir negotiates successfully Davis’s dangerously swift tempo at “Dispossessed, aside thrust, chuck’d down”. The marvellous, multi-layered build-up to the great outburst of “Praise to the Holiest” is very well managed by all concerned and that great shout of praise itself is as thrilling as it should be. Another moment that Davis controls superbly is the orchestral ascent to the great chord, like a blinding flash of light, with which Elgar masterfully illustrates the fleeting vision of God that Gerontius has before he sings “Take me away”. Davis makes it the moment of shattering revelation that it should be.
 
Among the soloists it is the bass who has the least to do. I was somewhat disappointed by Alastair Miles as the Priest. He delivers almost all the solo very strongly indeed but the light and shade, which one knows he can deliver, is largely absent. In fairness to him I think it was a serious mistake to position him above and behind the choir for this solo. He clearly has to work extremely hard to project over such a great distance from the audience and the result is unsubtle. In Part Two he’s conventionally positioned with the other soloists in front of the orchestra and I’m sure this positioning has much to do with the fact that he’s much more successful as the Angel of the Agony.
 
Philip Langridge takes the title role. I can’t recall hearing him as Gerontius before. He’s neither the most dramatic exponent of the role that I’ve heard, nor the most heroic but he gives a subtle and human portrayal. I love his use of mezza voce at his very first entry, the more so as he expands the voice well at ”And Thou art calling me”. However, even though he’s singing relatively close to a microphone I was conscious right from the start of resonance around his voice. While the microphone picks up the many subtle touches in his performance I strongly suspect much of that will have been lost on most of the audience present that evening, which is a shame. His ‘Sanctus Fortis’ is very good, full of conviction. Again, there’s a subtle moment to savour in this aria, where he employs mezza voce for the word “crucified.” As Part One unfolds, Langridge, with his operatic experience, is increasingly convincing as a dying man. So when he reaches “I can no more” he sounds appropriately drained, though he rallies to inject a sense of fearfulness at “and crueller still”. When he sings “Novissima hora est” one feels the last ounce of strength draining from him.
 
There’s much to admire from him in Part Two as well. The whole dialogue with The Angel is very well delivered – by both singers. Langridge’s first solo in Part Two is splendid. His operatic credentials served him well in Part One, here it’s his experience as a lieder and song recitalist that benefits his performance. At “I go before my judge” the hushed awe in his voice and Sir Andrew’s fine control of the orchestra work together to produce a wonderfully still moment. One thing surprised me. He makes a thrilling sound at “Take me away” but has to take a breath before singing “away”. I can only think that this is the price he had to pay for projecting into such a big acoustic. However, this hugely demanding final aria is very well done. Langridge imparts a real dramatic inflection to the music and finds the correct balance between fear and rapture.
 
The Angel is sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. She took this part several years ago in Vernon Handley’s recording for EMI. Some reviews I read at the time seemed to me seriously to underestimate her performance – and, indeed, Handley’s very fine recording as a whole. Some critics found her too reserved and even suggested she had been overawed by the assignment. I can see that by comparison with, say, Dame Janet Baker, Miss Wyn-Rogers may have seemed reserved but then Dame Janet always brought a wholly unique intensity to this role and much though I love to hear her sing it other singers can’t match her way with the part, nor should they try. For myself I have always admired Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ contribution to the Handley version and I’m happy to say that she didn’t disappoint me here.
 
Her very first solo, “My work is done”, indicates that this is going to be a warm, sympathetic reading. In this solo the third time she sings the word “Alleluia” it’s rapt and poised but the high E natural on the second “Alleluia” is properly thrilling. When she tells Gerontius “It is because thou didst fear, that now thou dost not fear” she sounds magnificently reassuring but she veils her tone wonderfully just a few bars later for “Also because already in thy soul the judgement is begun”. And then that marvellous melody at “A presage falls upon thee” is warmly expressive. At the end of the whole work “Softly and gently” is consoling and calmly reassuring. In this marvellous passage Miss Wyn-Rogers sets the seal on a fine and thoughtful performance.
 
The camera work is good. Most of the time attention is focused on the performers but the director intersperses a judicious number of shots of the interior of the cathedral. These shots are well chosen and do not distract; indeed I find that they enhance the music. The short introduction by James Naughtie is a good one and it includes useful contributions from Sir Andrew and from the noted Elgar biographer, Jerrold Northrop Moore. The sound is decent, given the issues of resonance and though one is conscious of the acoustic I don’t think this should deter collectors from acquiring this set. This committed performance of Elgar’s masterpiece is worthy of the music and of the noble building in which it was given.
 
John Quinn
 

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