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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.