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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900) [93’45"] *
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) [35’15"] §
* Gerontius: Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
The Angel: Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
The Priest, The Angel of the Agony: Michael George (bass)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Huddersfield Choral Society
Stephen Disley (organ)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
§ Michael Rippon (baritone)
Hallé Choir and Orchestra/James Loughran
Rec: Elgar: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 16, 17, 19 January 1993; Walton: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, September 1973
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75764 2 0 [72’22"+56’45"]


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Collectors who, like me, have far too many CDs will know the experience. You don’t listen for some time to a recording and then, upon reacquainting yourself with it rediscover its many virtues. In my case the editor’s request to me to review this welcome reissue of Vernon Handley’s recording of Gerontius has been such an occasion. I bought the recording when it first came out and rated it highly though I recall it was not universally welcomed by critics at the time. The reissue presents an opportunity for re-evaluation.

As Graham Handley points out in his good notes, reprinted from the original issue, it is appropriate that the Liverpool orchestra and Huddersfield choir should have been reunited for this recording since it was their respective predecessors who made the first complete recording of the work in April 1945. That legendary recording (now reissued on Testament and obligatory listening for all Elgarians) set a benchmark which has never been completely surpassed. I don’t think Handley’s performance is quite the equal of the original recording (though I happen to think he’s a much finer and more perceptive Elgar conductor than Sir Malcolm Sargent, who occupied the podium in 1945) but this recording is still a pretty considerable achievement.

For a start, it boasts the finest recorded sound of any version of the work that I’ve heard. The chorus and orchestra are well balanced against each other and plenty of detail can be heard without any suspicion of ‘spotlighting’. The soloists, too, are well caught and occupy their correct place in the overall sound picture. Finally, the important organ part registers beautifully. A few examples will suffice. The organ underpins the whole ensemble most effectively at ‘Go in the name’ in Part One (CD1, track 17, 2’02"). Again, sample the quiet yet cavernous bass sounds at the end of the Demon’s Chorus in Part Two (CD 2, track 6, 3’33"). It must also be said that the magnificent, build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ (CD 2, track 8, from 1’27"), whilst primarily the achievement of Handley, owes much to the fine work of engineer, Mike Hatch who faithfully reproduces every strand of Elgar’s many-layered texture here.

Another very big plus point for this recording is the work of the chorus itself. Handley has the luxury of two good choirs working together. I guess there must have been upwards of two hundred singers yet the chorus never sounds unwieldy. In the lead up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ which I’ve already mentioned the ladies really do sound like a Chorus of Angelicals as Elgar described them in the score. Generally, attention to dynamics is scrupulous, though one very rare blemish occurs towards the end, in ‘Softly and Gently’ where the first entry of the male chorus (CD 2, track 14, 1’47") certainly doesn’t sound pp to me. However, this is an isolated instance and otherwise the Huddersfield and Liverpool singers are a great credit to Brian Kay and Ian Tracey, their respective chorus masters. I’m bound to say, however, that as with most other choruses, their Demon’s Chorus (not one of my favourite passages in the work) is a little too well sung (CD 2, track 6). One is reminded of Barbirolli’s famous rebuke to a choir ("You are not bank clerks on a Sunday outing; you’re souls sizzling in hell"). He inspired the chorus on his recording to sound properly demonic but, by comparison, Handley’s singers are a bit well mannered, as are most other choruses on record.

The semi-chorus, which is deployed quite a lot by Elgar, sings well. Having said that I must say that no conductor has matched the (composer’s) insight of Benjamin Britten in his Decca recording. Britten pulled off something of a coup by using the choir of King’s College, Cambridge for his semi-chorus and the very distinct timbre of their voices, plus the distancing achieved by the Decca engineers, produces a magical, otherworldly effect unparalleled on disc in my experience. However, Handley has his own successes in this respect. For instance, when the semi chorus sings its first plainchant phrase in Part One (‘Noë from the waters…’) Handley notices, as no other conductor does quite as effectively, that their first entry is mf and the succeeding, similar ones are marked p (CD 1, track 16, 2’55"). A small point, maybe, but it shows the care and thought which has gone into the preparation of this recording.

Of course, Gerontius stands or falls by the soloists. In the title role Anthony Rolfe Johnson excels. He sings the many lyrical passages with lovely, honeyed tone but he has the strength and steel in his voice to do full justice to the ‘big moments’ without strain or forcing. His very opening phrases (CD 1, track 12) presage a thoughtful and sensitive interpretation. Indeed, I would suggest that his may well be the most elegant and lyrical account of the role to be recorded since the incomparable Heddle Nash (for Sargent in 1945). He may not have the ardent yet lyrical strength of, say, John Mitchinson (though I don’t think his voice was quite at its best for his EMI recording with Rattle) and he doesn’t bring to the role the individuality and insights of Peter Pears (for Britten) though many will prefer Rolfe Johnson’s more ‘central’ interpretation to that of Pears. However, Rolfe Johnson consistently phrases poetically and he makes a lovely sound. He is a most convincing Gerontius. His ‘Sanctus fortis’ (CD 1 track 15) is splendidly affirmative and he husbands his resources most effectively for the ardent climaxes so that there is no strain at all on the top A flat at ‘do to death.’ (track 15, 1’32"). Testing though Elgar’s writing is in this stretch of music, Rolfe Johnson is fully equal to the challenge and he gives an admirable performance.

As those who are familiar with his voice might expect, he particularly comes into his own in the more reflective passages. He is, for example, most affecting at ‘Novissima hora est’ (CD 1, track 16, 4’15") and achieves this effect through plain good, intelligent singing. How easy he makes this passage sound but, as any singer knows, these few bars are a searching test of technique. Sample, too, his sweet-toned eloquence in the opening of Part Two (CD 2, track 2) and, indeed, all his subsequent contributions to the dialogue with the Angel.

It is with the Angel that we come to what for some will be the controversial part of this recording. When the recording first appeared the distinguished critic, Alan Blyth, writing in Gramophone was one who was critical of Catherine Wyn-Rogers. I have to say that I disagreed with this view and, broadly I still do, though on reflection I think I see what Blyth was getting at. Where he heard nerves and an as-yet incomplete interpretation I hear a simple, straightforward delivery of the text and the notes. However, I’m not sure that Wyn-Rogers quite conveys the full range of emotion required for the Angel. In her defence I wonder to what extent we have been spoiled by the unforgettable interpretation of Dame Janet Baker. But other exponents of the role, such as Helen Watts (for Boult) and Yvonne Minton (Britten) have also been more eloquent Angels. Wyn-Rogers doesn’t "do" as much with the words as does Rolfe Johnson. However, her performance is blessedly free from affectation and she is very reliable. For instance ‘a presage falls upon thee.’ (CD 2, track 4, 4’20") is eloquent and warm toned and she blends well with Rolfe Johnson when he joins her in duet a few bars later. Indeed, the whole dialogue between the Angel and the Soul of Gerontius is well done, though I can imagine some listeners might find it restrained.

However, in all frankness I must admit that, good as she is, Wyn-Rogers does not invest any phrases with the sheer presence of Dame Janet. The key passages are not as memorable as Baker makes them. Which listener who has experienced the charisma of Baker can ever hear ‘Yes, for one moment…’ (CD 2, track 7, 0’27" in this recording), still less the heart-wrenching ‘there was a mortal who is now above…’ (track 8, 0’00") without recalling the unique inflections which she brought to such passages? Wyn-Rogers sings very well but she is not in the Premier League. Or perhaps I should say she wasn’t when this recording was made. Perhaps, as Alan Blyth suggested, she wasn’t quite ready then to record the role. However, I must say that hers is a very musical assumption of the role which has given me pleasure over the years.

The line-up of soloists is completed by Michael George. Here I must express a little regret that, as is usual, only one singer has been used for the bass roles. As Dennis Noble and Norman Walker demonstrated magnificently on the 1945 recording, you really need different singers for the roles are very different and lie differently. Ideally, the Priest’s role (taken by Noble in 1945) requires an heroic, high baritone while the Angel of the Agony calls for a more dramatic, sonorous bass voice. I can understand that two singers would be an extravagance at a concert but the fees of two singers would surely not break the budget for a recording. Trust Walter Legge (the 1945 producer) to be the only one to insist on this detail! As it is, George is noble and dignified at ‘Proficiscere’ (CD 1, track 17) and he is a powerful Angel of the Agony (CD 2, track 12).

Presiding over all is Vernon Handley who is a totally convincing and idiomatic interpreter of this score. He is scrupulous in his attention to matters of balance and dynamic. Crucially, he doesn’t miss any of the huge number of subtle variations of tempo (often, as in all his scores, Elgar modifies the tempo almost from one bar to the next). Here we have a master Elgar conductor at work and he inspires the orchestra to play above themselves. So, for example, the string playing at the start of Part Two (CD 2, track 1) is translucent. At the other end of the scale, having patiently built up the texture and the tension over many preceding pages of the score, (CD 2, track 8 from 1’27") Handley ensures that the great choral outburst at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ makes its full effect (track 10, 0’00") . This is one of the great moments in all choral literature and here it is as thrilling as it should be – as if a great pair of bronze doors has been thrown open to let the light flood in (the engineers ensure that the organ is very ‘present’ here, as it should be). Handley is just as successful in the remainder of this chorus. This can seem an anticlimax (I recall one writer warning of the danger of it degenerating into an amiable romp in 6/4 time) but Handley is alive to all the dynamic nuances and ensures that interest never flags for a second. The concluding section for double chorus from cue 89 in the score (track 10, 4’17") is not rushed and thereby Handley achieves admirable clarity without loss of momentum. Another passage which particularly caught my ear was the orchestral build up to ‘Take me away’ (CD 2, track 13 from 0’48"). This is majestically delivered by the RLPO brass and Handley makes a daringly long dramatic pause (1’16") before the blinding flash of orchestral light which precedes Gerontius’ awestruck outburst. This is quite superb conducting.

In my experience no recording of Gerontius is absolutely ideal – is that possible? Some, however, have come pretty close, particularly Barbirolli and Sargent (1945). Britten’s performance, too, whilst certainly not a central recommendation, has much to teach us about the score (the insights of one great composer interpreting the work of another). I’d place Handley’s account pretty high on the list also.

The original release included as the coupling Gordon Jacob’s fine orchestration of Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G major in a fine performance by Handley and the RLPO. This has now given way to a recording of Belshazzar’s Feast which was new to me. It gets off to a rather shaky start for in the opening choral recitation, ‘Thus spake Isaiah’ (CD 1, track 1) the tenors are virtually inaudible and the whole passage sounds odd and incomplete. The following chorus, ‘By the waters of Babylon’ also seemed to me to lack some tension.

However, matters improve significantly at the first entry of the excellent soloist, Michael Rippon (track 2). He is sonorous in ‘If I forget thee’ and later he does the famous "shopping list" very well indeed. After that solo the chorus seems much more energised and effective (track 4 from 1’23") and the Feast itself is described with punch and relish. The praises of the various Gods are well done by both choir and orchestra and Rippon really makes the listeners flesh creep in the episode of the writing on the wall (track 7). The concluding paean of joy is suitably exuberant though at one point (track 10, 2’20") some of the choir momentarily get carried away and audibly over sing.

The recording is generally pretty good and the extra brass groups certainly make their presence felt. I did notice one oddity, however. At one point during the description of the Feast, the balance goes awry momentarily and the chorus recedes quite noticeably (track 4, 4’00"). It doesn’t last long but the flaw does rather undermine the tension of the performance at that point.

After the rather uncertain start this is a pretty good performance. By itself it would not be a first choice recommendation (for that you should look to Previn, Rattle or Walton himself) but it’s a good fill up to the Elgar.

This set is a most attractive proposition, containing two very good performances of masterpieces of English oratorio. I suppose most people will buy it primarily for Gerontius. In that case, I’d recommend that you try to sample the singing of Catherine Wyn-Rogers before committing yourself. I find her performance perfectly acceptable but some may be less enthusiastic. There are notes but, sadly, no texts are provided. However, for the most part the words are clearly sung so this is not an insuperable problem, at least for English-speaking listeners.

If you invest in this set you’ll acquire a decent performance of Belshazzar’s Feast and an excellent one of The Dream of Gerontius. This issue is a very good bargain and I confidently recommend it.


John Quinn



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