> ELGAR Gerontius Sargent [JW]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius

Heddle Nash, tenor,
Gladys Ripley, contralto
Dennis Noble, baritone
Norman Walker, bass
Huddersfield Choral Society
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
Sea Pictures

Gladys Ripley, contralto
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon
Recorded April 1945 (Gerontius) 1946 (Sea Pictures)
PEARL GEMS 0128 [2 CDs 113.20]


AmazonUK £17.99  AmazonUS $33.23

Cards on the table. This is the greatest recording of The Dream of Gerontius ever made and preserves a performance of such musico-dramatic strength, such beauty and understanding that it is hard to conceive that it will ever be surpassed. In its articulation of the architecture it is unique; in its control and flexibility within a dramatic and fluent pulse it is unrivalled; in its soloists it has voices seemingly made for the role and in one, Heddle Nash, an impersonation so complete as to be almost miraculous; it has an orchestra in fiercely involved form and a choir of remarkable engagement. And in Sargent – in surely his greatest recording – it has a conductor whose conception is so overwhelmingly comprehensive, whose negotiation of rubato is one of the most acute perception and whose incisive and inflective conducting is in a class of its own.

It is well known that Walter Legge, the producer, strove to engage Boult in place of Sargent and Ferrier instead of Ripley. Our loss at not hearing Ferrier is more than compensated for in the singing of the equally tragic Gladys Ripley who died of cancer at the age of 47. Sargent’s conducting holds in perfect equilibrium the details of architecture and spiritual intensity; the necessity for a degree of latitude within a forward-moving tempo. His is viscerally alive conducting. Nash is incomparable. He has clarity of diction and beauty of tone with plangency and strength, his lyric tenor negotiating every hurdle, alive to every nuance and feeling. By 1945 he customarily sang without a score and his identification with the role was absolute. Anyone who knows and reveres this recording will attest to the power of Novissima hora est or Sanctus Fortis, I went to sleep (with his inward and bleached tone) or Take me away but everywhere he is magnificent. His conversational ease in Part II, in I would have nothing and I had ever believed are imperishable moments. Once his intensity was derided for its quasi-operatic intensity but not now. Unforgettable is his phrase the like of whom, the last word vested with such horror and do to death with its gulped note. When Nash sings O Jesu help it is singing beyond beauty – it is simply transcendent.

Gladys Ripley has wonderful tonal resources; she is expressive and warm and there is consolation but not matronliness in her eloquence. She is therefore as moving as any singer in Softly and gently; her duet with Nash is exquisitely done, the two voices perfectly complementing each other. Her singing of the passage Yes – for one moment is of almost unbearable intensity. I can only say that I find her the moving exponent of The Angel I have ever heard. The Priest and the Angel of Agony are – uniquely – split between Dennis Noble and Norman Walker. Noble is commanding, magnificent and Walker, more a basso cantante in contrast to Noble’s baritone, is more pliant and softer grained, in equally superb voice. The Liverpool Philharmonic was Britain’s most outstanding orchestra at the time with superb principals and section players and the Huddersfield Choral Society had been superbly trained by chorus master Herbert Bardgett. They are precise, expressively involving and often overwhelming in their intensity.

In addition there is an entirely apposite 1946 recording of Sea Pictures with Gladys Ripley, here accompanied by the Philharmonia, in one of its early outings on disc, conducted by George Weldon. It’s an admirable performance – precisely articulated and in Sabbath Morning at Sea emphatic, with expressive portamanti from Ripley that reminds one of the benignity of her singing of The Angel. There is certainly less onrush, less romantic involvement and engagement than some performances have found though maybe there is a compelling gain in introspection as a result – I especially liked the grandeur and flexibility of The Swimmer. But, no, it won’t displace the searing intensities of Baker and Barbirolli, who remain sui generis here.

Notes are by Lewis Foreman and the texts are well presented. The transfer is good but there is an unfortunate gap between the Prelude and Nash’s entry that might grate. EMI’s rival reissue couples the Dream of Gerontius with Tortelier’s first traversal of the Cello Concerto, again with Sargent. I’ve not heard it. Whichever you choose the result is a performance of incandescence and spiritual engagement impossible to forget.

Jonathan Woolf

See also Barbirolli


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