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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857Ė1934)

The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

Some personal observations on recordings of the work

The Background

On 8 May 1889 Edward Elgar married Alice Roberts at Brompton Oratory. Among the wedding presents he received was a copy of the poem, The Dream of Gerontius by John, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), which was given to him by the parish priest of the Catholic church in Worcester where Elgar had been the organist. Newmanís poem had been published in 1865 and Elgar was familiar with it already but now he had his own copy of the text. However, it was not until he received an invitation from the prestigious Birmingham Festival to compose a major choral work for the 1900 festival that Elgar turned in earnest to making a setting of the poem.

Newmanís poem is a long one, consisting of some 900 lines, including a substantial prologue. Elgar set most of the prologue as Part One of his composition but for Part Two he pruned the main body of the poem drastically, setting only about 300 of its 730 lines. His imagination fired by Newmanís verse, Elgar proceeded to compose what the critic Michael Steinberg has described as "a truly complete response to a poem of immense religious, intellectual, and literary complexity Ė complete both as an avowal of faith and as a work of human art."

In 1899 Elgar had scored a conspicuous triumph with the orchestral ĎEnigmaí Variations. That work marked a quantum leap forward in terms of his compositional technique, his imagination, and his mastery of the orchestra. In the same way Gerontius was a huge advance for him as a choral composer. He had already written several notable large-scale cantatas but though King Olaf (1896) and Caractacus (1898) in particular are fine works Gerontius is a work of genius. In the solo writing we find Elgar displaying the same ability to depict characters in music that he had shown in ĎEnigmaí. In addition, the writing for the chorus is quite superb and Elgar deploys the choir daringly. This is especially true of the build-up to ĎPraise to the Holiestí, where the multi-layered choral writing is amazingly assured and produces thrilling spatial effects. Later on in that same chorus, when the choir is divided into eight separate parts the complex individual lines fit together superbly. And the orchestration too represents a significant advance, even on ĎEnigmaí, as the subtlety and power of the orchestral prelude alone demonstrates in abundance. As Michael Kennedy has observed, "Gerontius is the very pivot of his career: it sums up and glorifies all that he had been striving to say with lesser material and subjects, and at the same time looks forward, in its revolutionary ardour, to the symphonies and the later choral works."

However, what truly sets Gerontius apart from all Elgarís previous compositions is the sense of vision. Newmanís mystical poem clearly held Elgar in thrall. We may wonder how much this complex man, often beset by self-doubt even when at the height of his powers and fame, identified with Gerontius himself. Certainly Elgar depicts Gerontiusís trepidation, uncertainty and, finally, his sense of smallness beside the immense majesty of God, with remarkable prescience. The portrayal of Gerontiusís Guardian Angel as a being of serenity, reassurance and protection, yet also of quiet authority, is also remarkably successful.

But the vision was nearly still-born; the première in Birmingham on 3 October 1900 was a near-disaster. The choir, faced with some of the most challenging music they can ever have encountered, was poorly prepared. Unfortunately, the chorus-master, who understood Elgarís music, died very suddenly just before rehearsals commenced. His seventy year-old predecessor was called back out of retirement and was manifestly not up to the task, not least because he was out of sympathy both with the music and, as a Non-Conformist, with the text. The orchestra was equally under-rehearsed and the great German conductor, Hans Richter, who had triumphantly led the first performance of ĎEnigmaí in June 1899, had not mastered in advance this new and much more complex score. Somehow they got through to the end and despite the manifest inadequacies of the performance Gerontius was warmly received by both the audience and the critics, though the reception did little to cheer the distraught composer. Despite his failure to give Gerontius a fitting première, Richter was clearly moved and impressed. After the first performance he wrote in Elgarís score in his idiosyncratic English: "Let drop the Chorus, let drop everybody Ė but let not drop the wings of your original Genius."

The Music

Gerontius has a compelling logic and a narrative inevitability. After the orchestral Prelude, in which all the key musical themes that will be heard in the work are presented, we find the character of Gerontius on his deathbed. Friends and a priest are close at hand. Gerontius alternates between, on the one hand, frailty and trepidation (ĎJesu, Maria, I am near to deathí) and, on the other, courage and faith (ĎSanctus fortisí). The chorus, representing his friends, punctuates his last moments with prayers until, after he has breathed his last, they and the Priest commit his soul to God (ĎProficiscere, anima Christianaí)

When Part Two opens Elgar transports us to another world through the device of a short, luminous prelude of ethereal beauty. The Soul of Gerontius has passed into this spiritual place and here he encounters his Guardian Angel (ĎMy work is doneí). The Angelís last service is be to guide him to Judgement, first leading him safely past the dreadful spectacle of the Demons (ĎLow-born clods of brute earthí). On the way the Angel explains to Gerontius that he will be granted but a glimpse of God before he is despatched to Purgatory (ĎYes, for one moment thou shalt see thy Lordí). The last stages of the journey to Judgement see Gerontius led through the serried ranks of Angelicals, who are praising God, until it is as if great gold doors have been flung open and the hymn of praise erupts (ĎPraise to the Holiestí).

After the tumult has subsided the Angel of the Agony stands close to the throne of God. He begs divine mercy for all those souls that come to judgement, culminating in a deeply moving phrase that is at once grand and supplicatory, (ĎHasten, Lord, their hour and bid them come to Theeí). Gerontius stands, humble, insignificant and afraid, before his God (ĎI go before my judgeí). In a masterstroke, Elgar depicts the brief moment when Gerontius sees God as the musical equivalent of a blinding flash of light. ĎTake me awayí, cries Gerontius in a mixture of fear and ecstasy. As he begins his time in Purgatory, the Angel calmly reassures him that his time there will pass and that once he is purged his Angel will bring him safely to everlasting life.

 

Gerontius in Performance

Elgar sets his interpreters many challenges in this work. The bass soloist has least to do but one of the key issues is that his two solos are very different both in character and in tessitura. The Priest should be noble, dignified and consolatory without ever sounding sanctimonious. The role lies predominantly in the baritone range. The role of The Angel of The Agony ideally calls for a basso cantante with a commanding presence and the ability to inspire a degree of awe. Many times, both on record and in concert, Iíve felt that a soloist is better suited to one role or the other. The ideal solution is to have two singers but this is an expensive luxury. Iíve never seen it done in a professional performance and to date itís only been done once on record.

Is the role of The Angel better sung by a contralto or a mezzo-soprano? In truth I think the answer is that either type of voice can fulfil the role but it depends on who the singer is. Attitude is all-important. If the singer is too objective then thereís a risk of coolness Ė that happens in at least one of the recordings under discussion here. But Iíd rather have coolness than a fulsome approach Ė thankfully none of our singers falls into that trap. Arguably, nowadays thereís a further challenge for singers of the role: the shadow cast by Dame Janet Baker. There can be few roles in music on which one singer has so firmly stamped his or her mark and Iím sure Iím not the only person who cannot hear certain phrases without hearing in my head the way Dame Janet inflects them. In fact, itís just as much of a challenge to listeners such as me to put those thoughts aside when listening as it is for singers to put their own stamp on the role.

As for the tenor, well Elgar all but asks the impossible. On the one hand Gerontius needs the power and stamina of a heldentenor for passages such as ĎSanctus fortisí and Ďtake me awayí. On the other hand much of the role, especially in Part Two, demands the subtlety of a lieder singer. Furthermore, the singer must convincingly suggest a dying man at the start of the work yet be capable of meeting the rigours of ĎSanctusí Fortisí. Then, in Part Two, he must express, without overdoing it, a sense of wonder, fear and awe as he portrays the Soul experiencing life after death. Identification with the text and the character are crucial and not every one of our soloists passes this test. But if one encounters a singer who can satisfy most, if not all, of Elgarís demands then the rewards are great. Arguably, prior to Gerontius, itís only in Elijah that we find as full a portrayal of a character in a piece of music with a religious theme

The chorus too must play their part. Itís often forgotten how little of Gerontius is actually choral music Ė only about one third, Iíd say. The rest consists of solos and two orchestral preludes. However, the choral music is very challenging and itís easy to see why the ill-prepared chorus came to grief at the première. The long lead-up to ĎPraise to the Holiestí, with its many layers and luminous textures, is a major test. So too, in a very different way, is the Demonís Chorus, where, in Barbirolliís memorable phrase, the chorus should avoid sounding "like bank clerks on a Sunday outing".

But inevitably the greatest challenges are faced by the conductor, who must hold the whole thing together and inspire a performance of strength and feeling while eschewing any religiosity. He (or she) must also bring out the drama in the work. There are large forces to control and complex ensembles to direct. Yet much of the music, especially at the start of Part Two, is intimate and subtle. But Elgar helps his conductor. As in all his works, the score is littered with copious instructions as to tempo and dynamics. As a highly experienced Elgar conductor told me more than once, itís all in the score and "all" the conductor has to do is to follow Elgarís markings! Gerontius is difficult to define Ė and impossible to pigeonhole Ė but it is very far removed from "conventional" Victorian oratorio and often almost operatic in its intensity and sense, almost, of theatre. Elgarís achievement is particularly remarkable since he must have been exposed to Ė and found it hard to break free from Ė the influence of many a second-rate oratorio during his formative years in Worcester. For the conductor, finding the balance between religious sentiment and the essential drama of the piece is not easy but itís the key.

The recordings

I know of eleven CD versions of this work, in addition to which there is a DVD of a live performance by Sir Andrew Davis. On CD the choice is between - in chronological order of recording - Sir Malcolm Sargent (HMV, 1945); Sargent again (EMI, 1954); Sir John Barbirolli (EMI, 1964); Benjamin Britten (Decca, 1972); Sir Adrian Boult (EMI, 1976), Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, 1986); Vernon Handley (EMI Eminence, 1993); Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live, 2005); and Sakari Oramo (CBSO, 2006), There are also versions by Sir Alexander Gibson (CRD) and Richard Hickox (Chandos) but Iím not making any comments about these two recordings, because I donít own copies from which to make detailed comparisons. As far as I know all of these recordings are currently available. Itís interesting to note in passing the extent to which EMI or various divisions of that company have led the way in recording this work. The survey that follows consists of some personal reflections on most of the recordings.

Historic incomplete recordings

Before dealing with the complete recordings mention should be made of some fascinating historical extracts. The first-ever recordings of parts of Gerontius were made Ė by HMV, which was eventually to become part of EMI Ė in 1927 with Elgar himself conducting. Over forty minutes of music, including the complete Part One Prelude, were captured in a live performance in Londonís Royal Albert Hall on 26 February 1927. Later that same year, on 6 September, HMV captured the composer in Hereford Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival but only some 16 minutes of that performance have survived onto CD. So far as I know the only CD incarnation of those excerpts is contained in Volume One of EMIís utterly indispensable Elgar Edition (EMI Classics CDS 7 54560 2. 3 CDs). Though tantalisingly brief, these extracts are of great value and interest.

Just recently The Elgar Society has issued a three-disc set, Elgarís Interpreters on Record, Vol. 5 (EECD003-5). These CDs contain off-air recordings made by the late Kenneth Leech and include just over thirty minutes of extracts from a 1936 radio broadcast conducted by Boult. Even more fascinating is no less than seventy-one minutes of excerpts from another broadcast, this time from 1935, conducted by Sargent. In both cases the Gerontius is Heddle Nash. Opposite him are two highly contrasted Angels, Astra Desmond for Sargent and Muriel Brunskill for Boult. We also hear Keith Falkner in fine voice in both bass solos in 1935 but the bass in the Boult performance, Horace Stevens, offers a much less enjoyable listening experience. The sound quality is variable and surface noise is often intrusive, especially in the Sargent extracts. However, whilst the orchestra and chorus are rather dimly heard, meaning that itís unfair to judge their contributions, the soloists are all clearly recorded.

Nash had given his first performance in Gerontius in 1931, at the prompting of Elgar himself, who conducted Nashís first performance of the role. The Sargentís performance was noted in Nashís score as the fourth occasion on which heíd sung the work. Heís captured in very good voice. He sings with a real feeling for the words and his identification with words and music is complete. Where itís called for his voice has an heroic ring, though what impresses me even more is the sense of inwardness that he conveys. We shall find all these qualities displayed again Ė and arguably to even greater effect - in his 1945 recording. There are occasions where Nash and Sargent linger over detail just a bit too much but the conviction of the performance carries the day. Nash brings a fine degree of intimacy and wonder to the dialogue with the Angel in Part Two. His Angel is Astra Desmond, who is described aptly by the late Alan Blyth in the booklet as "calm and serene." Keith Falkner is an elevated Priest and a fine Angel of the Agony.

The Boult extracts are in sound that is appreciably better. Nash delivers a superb "Sanctus fortis". Muriel Brunskill is a very different type of Angel in comparison with Desmond. Hers is a rounder, more full voice, a genuine contralto in fact. Horace Stevens was reputed to be a fine exponent of the bass roles but if what we hear in these extracts is representative then that reputation was grossly exaggerated. In fact heís almost a caricature; his emphatic, portentous delivery of "Proficiscere" gives me no pleasure whatsoever.

In all these instances the performing styles are very much of their time and not all modern listeners will react positively. Inevitably the sound calls for some tolerance, especially in the Sargent recording. But all these extracts are precious; one set conducted by the composer himself, and the others, both from performances within a couple of years of Elgarís death, are by leading interpreters of the work who indubitably imbibed their performing tradition from the composer himself. It should also be noted that all three singers of the title role in these recordings - Steuart Wilson and Tudor Davies sang for Elgar Ė are tenors of whose performances he is known to have approved.

These are recordings which all lovers of Elgarís music should try to hear; they are highly relevant to a wider audience than just specialist collectors.

Complete recordings prior to 1970

The first complete recording of Gerontius was made in Huddersfield Town Hall between 8 and 12 April 1945 under the auspices of the British Council and was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Walter Legge was the producer. The distinguished cast included Heddle Nash in the title role, Gladys Ripley as the Angel and, uniquely on record, a baritone, Denis Noble, as The Priest and a bass, Norman Walker, as The Angel of the Agony. Also taking part were The Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording has been issued on several labels in recent years, including Pearl (see review) and on Pristine Audio (see review). My experience of this recording is confined to the version issued in 1993 by Testament and my comments refer only to that transfer. However, my colleague, Jonathan Woolf, has heard all three transfers and it may help collectors to summarize his views of them. He is not enamoured of the Pristine Audio transfer for the reasons mentioned in his review. Iím grateful to him for providing the following comment on his view of the relative merits of the Testament and Pearl versions: "the Testament is smoother and has been more filtered; it gives an easier aural ride but the Pearl will appeal to those who can absorb shellac hiss and welcome the preserved higher frequencies. I'd go for the Pearl but I suspect the majority would prefer Testament."

By the time Heddle Nash came to make this recording he had noted twenty-two performances of Gerontius in his score so he was truly a seasoned interpreter. His performance here is, quite simply, wonderful. As in 1935, he and Sargent linger expressively on occasion Ė for example, in Nashís very first solo. However, "Sanctus fortis" burns with conviction and throughout Part One the ardour and urgency of Nashís interpretation is readily matched by Sargent. The cry at "In Thine own agony" sounds as if it has been wrenched from Nashís very being. The hushed inwardness that he achieves through the use of head voice at "Novissima hora est" makes for a very special moment indeed.

In Part Two, after Sargent has directed a compelling reading of the gently luminous Prelude, Nash sings his opening solo with a miraculously light airiness. Above all he conveys a sense of wonder in these pages that is deeply affecting and he sustains this mood throughout the dialogue with the Angel. Gladys Ripley sings that role quite beautifully. She has a lovely tone and sings sincerely and is most communicative. Hers is a distinguished performance throughout and her achievement is capped by a dignified and touching account of the Farewell.

Walter Legge had the discernment to engage different soloists for the two bass roles, a real piece of luxury casting. But his "extravagance" pays off. Denis Noble is well suited to the higher tessitura of the Priestís role while Norman Walker is a commanding presence as the Angel of the Agony. The Huddersfield Choral Society makes a stirring contribution. One wonders what impact the war must have had on their membership; presumably many younger members would have been away on active service at this time. Thereís no evidence of weakness, however, and all the big choruses come across very well. The Liverpool orchestra also plays extremely well. The sound has come up remarkably well in this Testament transfer.

Sargent was back in Huddersfield to re-record the work in November 1954, to mark his impending sixtieth birthday. Again he conducted the townís Choral Society and the by-now Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This time his soloists were Richard Lewis, Marjorie Thomas and John Cameron. Lewis is a very involving Gerontius. Heís tremendous at the start of "Sanctus fortis" and indeed he sings the whole of that aria splendidly. Hear him, for instance, in the passage beginning "And crueller still", which is quite gripping. Showing, however, that he is responsive to the whole range of the part, heís rapt at "Novissima hora est". Throughout the whole set he displays marvellous clarity of tone and diction. His singing gives consistent pleasure and seems effortless.

Marjorie Thomas is a good angel, if not, perhaps, the most distinctive one has heard. She makes all the expressive points but, happily, never overstates them. The dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel at the start of Part Two is very well sung by both soloists and itís fluently conducted by Sargent. In the closing section of the work "Take me away" sounds as if the music is being ripped from Lewis and he gives a very good performance of the aria. As for Marjorie Thomasís account of the Farewell it seems appropriate to borrow Alan Blythís phase and describe it as "calm and serene".

EMI didnít repeat the extravagance of 1945 and contented themselves with one singer for the bass roles. The choice fell upon that fine singer John Cameron. He makes a noble, prayerful Priest. Perhaps he lacks the last ounce of vocal amplitude for the Angel of the Agony, a role that has a lower tessitura overall. However, he sings the part very well, not least those magnificent phrases at "Hasten, Lord, their hour."

The singing of the Huddersfield Choral Society has a bit more bite and presence than that of their 1945 counterparts. Perhaps the average age of the choir was a little lower in peacetime? I suspect, however, that itís more to do with the advances in recording technology over the intervening years. Suffice to say that, for the second time, the choral reputation of Huddersfield is well served although the outburst at "Praise to the Holiest" is heard more thrillingly on several other recordings and later in the same chorus the passage beginning at "O loving wisdom of our God" could and should sound more urgent. With another good showing from the Liverpool orchestra this is another very telling contribution by Sargent to the workís discography. I feel that his interpretation is heard to better advantage in its 1945 incarnation though, of course, the remake is in much better sound.

Richard Lewis was also involved in the third complete recording of the work (see review) but this time the venue was on the other side of the Pennines. The Free Trade Hall, Manchester was the place where, in December 1964, Sir John Barbirolli assembled the combined forces of the Hallé Choir and Orchestra, the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the professional singers of the Ambrosian Singers, who, I think, formed the semi-chorus. Joining Lewis on the soloistsí roster were the Finnish bass, Kim Borg and a young mezzo-soprano named Janet Baker.

Iíve heard that Lewis was suffering from a cold at the time of these sessions. There are one or two occasions when one wonders if he was in fresher voice for Sargent but the differences, if differences they be, are minor. Once again he gives a most convincing portrayal. Indeed, in his very first solo he seems to suggest the frailty of the dying Gerontius even more convincingly than he did for Sargent. Heís right on top of "Sanctus fortis", of which he gives a splendid, ringing account. Heís alive to every nuance of the role and attains a real spirituality at "Novissima hora est". When we encounter him in Part Two he conveys an inwardness and a sense of wonder to rival Heddle Nash. In "Take me away" his singing catches both the anguish and the hope thatís inherent in both the words and the music. In summary, Lewis is a first rate Gerontius, one of the finest exponents of the role on disc.

But for me one of the key factors behind the success of this recording is the performance of Dame Janet Baker. When she sings for the first time what was already an exceptionally eloquent performance is taken to a new and higher level. Down the years much has been written about her assumption of this role and for many she is the Angel, though Iím sure Dame Janet herself would be the first to dismiss such talk. Nonetheless, the fact remains that for many people, myself included, itís almost impossible to hear certain phrases without hearing in the mind the unique tone quality and inflection that she brought to these passages. These key phrases include "You cannot now cherish a wish"; "It is because then thou didst fear"; "A presage falls upon thee"; and "There was a mortal". On these and many other parts of the work Dame Janet has left an enduring mark. With singers of the calibre and intelligence of Lewis and Dame Janet on hand itís no surprise that the dialogue between the Soul and the Angel is deeply satisfying in this recording. Both singers are audibly right inside their roles and, of course, they are guided and inspired by Barbirolli.

I mentioned Bakerís participation as a key factor behind the success of this recording. The other is the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. Gerontius was a piece that he loved deeply and that comes through in every bar of this recording. True, there are one or two points when one wonders if he isnít loving the music just a little too much but he doesnít wallow in the emotion of the work and itís abundantly clear that he inspires his forces to give of their very best, individually and collectively, in the service of Elgarís music. The Hallé Orchestra plays marvellously. The Prelude to Part One sings with Barbirolli as for no one else and in the Prelude to Part Two he coaxes playing of great refinement from the string section. But itís on the choir that he works his strongest alchemy, inspiring them to sing with enormous commitment Ė there isnít a bank clerk in sight during the Demonís Chorus, which is sung Ė and played Ė with real bite. The long build up to "Praise to the Holiest" is superbly handled and Barbirolli and the engineers realise with great skill the many layers of choral texture. When we reach the great paean of praise itself itís a thrilling moment.

The performance is crowned by a deeply moving account by all concerned of the Angelís Farewell. Here we realise that Baker has saved her best singing of all for the end. She sounds consoling and encouraging but her singing is not just emotionally engaged itís also technically superb. The exquisite top E on the word "hold" in the bar before cue 129 is, for me, almost worth the price of the discs alone.

Sadly, there is a flaw in this set and itís not an inconsiderable one. The bass solos are allotted to the Finnish bass Kim Borg. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Borg was Barbirolliís own choice. Even if thatís not the case Michael Kennedy remarks in his definitive biography of the conductor that JB had a penchant for bass voices such as Borgís in Gerontius and that it mattered not if they werenít English. Sadly, Borg is very badly miscast. His English pronunciation is idiosyncratic, to put it kindly. One might forgive him that were it not for the fact that, to my ears at least, the sound he makes is just ugly. I donít detect any great feeling for or understanding of what heís singing and "Proficiscere" is only rescued by the superb choir. His solo in Part Two is no more appealing and oneís enthusiasm for this set must be qualified on account of his involvement. As I write this recording has just been reissued as one of EMIís Great Recordings of the Century.

Before leaving Barbirolli itís worth mentioning another recording that has surfaced from time to time on various unofficial labels. This version captures a live performance given in Rome in November 1957 when Barbirolli directed the chorus and orchestra of the Italian broadcasting organisation, RAI. Once again Barbirolli was given Ė or chose - a big-voiced European bass, in this case the Pole, Marian Nowkowski. His Angel was that fine English contralto, Constance Shacklock. Most interest lies, however, in the involvement of the remarkable Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers. [Archipel (ARPCD0403) coupled with a live 1947 Halle/Barbirolli Symphonie Fantastique.]

Vickers is a powerful, ringing Gerontius, as one might expect. But he also encompasses the more sensitive passages well. Constance Shacklock has a rich contralto voice and she sings with feeling and understanding. Marian Nowkowski is not much better suited to the bass roles than was Borg. However, his voice falls more pleasingly on the ear. The English pronunciation of the Italian choir is definitely an acquired taste. In truth, this performance adds nothing to our view of Barbirolliís interpretation of Gerontius Ė though his trademark groans are much more in evidence than on the EMI recording. But if itís possible to track down a copy of the recording then lovers of the work will find the performances by Jon Vickers and Constance Shacklock of no little interest.

========================

Complete recordings: 1970-2006

Having drawn something of an arbitrary line at the year 1970 I classify the remaining recordings as "non-historic". The first of these recordings is a bit special for me as it was the first I ever owned and therefore the one through which I really got to know the work. It also earns something of a unique place in the pantheon because itís conducted by another composer, Benjamin Britten, who brings some fascinating insights of his own to the work (see review). The recording was made in The Maltings, Snape in 1971, after an Aldeburgh Festival performance.

Britten had an interesting team of soloists. Perhaps predictably the Gerontius was Peter Pears. As the Angel, he had the Australian mezzo, Yvonne Minton while John Shirley-Quirk sang the bass roles. Britten scored a particular coup by using the choir of Kingís College, Cambridge, for his semi-chorus. The different timbre of this choir set against the London Symphony Chorus is telling Ė in a wholly positive way. On no other recording is the vital semi-chorus contribution so individually defined. The use of the Kingís choir in this way suggests to me that Britten had thought about Gerontius very deeply.

Early on in the performance thereís another small detail that shows how Britten has thought about the score. In the Prelude to Part One there are two abrupt cut-offs just before cue 10. Britten, however, includes a drum roll at this point. Itís completely unauthorised Ė and very exciting, though the drama of the abrupt cut-off of the entire orchestra is sacrificed. I wouldnít want to hear it done this way all the time but itís good to hear it this way once in a while. Iíve never heard this done before or since until the Colin Davis recording appeared.

Brittenís conducting is very fine. Much of the Prelude has sweep and urgency and he obtains really red-blooded playing from the LSO and singing to match from the LSO Chorus. This is not to say that the performance lacks refinement for that is certainly not the case. Once or twice Britten rather overplays his hand, most notably in the animato section of "Praise to the Holiest", from cue 89. Frankly, between here and cue 95 Brittenís urgent pacing becomes rushed and as a result the music has become gabbled before cue 95 is reached. I also wish heíd held back a little immediately before the choirís great outpouring at "Praise to the Holiest" itself. Itís marked maestoso the first time and molto maestoso the second time but Britten rather ignores the markings and whilst the result has energy the grandeur goes for nothing. But such miscalculations are rare and what impresses above all in Brittenís reading is the sense of drama. In this, albeit their interpretations are very different, he comes closest to Barbirolli and itís surely not without significance that of all the conductors under review here apart from Sir Colin Davis these two had the most extensive operatic experience.

Peter Pearsí assumption of the title role wonít be to all tastes. He was sixty-one when this recording was made and, arguably, the recording came a few years too late in his career. However, itís a while since Iíve listened to this performance and coming back to it now for this retrospect I was surprised at how good he actually is. Heís ardent in "Sanctus fortis" although he does seem to need to take more breaths than many of his rivals. He floats "Novissima hora est" plangently and, indeed, itís in the quieter, more introspective sections of the role that heís at his most effective. Given his eminence as a singer of art-songs itís perhaps no surprise that heís in his element in the opening paragraphs of Part Two. Here he sings with no little eloquence and he combines very tellingly with the Angel of Yvonne Minton. I detected signs of strain and tiredness by the time we get to "Take me away" and this isnít the most convincing account of that aria on disc. One interesting small point is that Pears takes the lower alternative at "and go above" in the bar after cue 123, something Iíve not heard done by any other singer on disc Ė itís a choice which is rather at odds with the words.

Miss Minton is a very fine angel. She may not tug at the heart-strings in the way that Dame Janet does, but sheís at all times tasteful and sensitive. She does the Farewell very nicely indeed, though itís noticeable that Britten is unsentimental here and makes the music flow more than anyone else, though not to its detriment. The third soloist also makes a very distinguished contribution. John Shirley-Quirk is in sovereign voice as the Priest. The Angel of the Agony is not entirely within his best compass but he sings the part well, and heís magnificent at "Hasten, Lord, their hour."

This Britten performance would not rank as a first choice but itís a most interesting and vital interpretation and one that anyone interested in the work ought to hear.

The next recording to be made was the one for which Elgar enthusiasts had been waiting with no little impatience for many years. At last, in 1976, Sir Adrian Boult was invited to record the work for EMI. He had a very noted exponent of the role of the Angel in Helen Watts and the bass soloist was Robert Lloyd. For the role of Gerontius the choice was a controversial one, the Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Geddaís performance drew mixed notices at the time, as I recall but, according to Michael Kennedyís authoritative biography of Boult, the conductor himself was pleased with the choice, describing Gedda as "Alpha plus". In a letter to the producer, Christopher Bishop, again quoted by Kennedy, Boult thanked Bishop for his "choice of and responsibility for the soloists, including the brilliant recruitment of an unlikely foreigner."

In listening to Gedda, I donít have the reservations about his English pronunciation that I do where Kim Borg is concerned. Sometimes the vowels sound a little unnaturally stressed but overall Gedda is good in this respect. Heís eloquent in his first solo though I find him a touch mannered at "Rouse thee, my fainting soul." Heís powerful, but also lyrical, in "Sanctus fortis" but, on the other hand, the aria doesnít quite seem to flow. When we get to "I can no more" Gedda displays a wide range of expression and dynamics but in the passage beginning at "O Jesu, help!" the music does seem to be pulled about too much. The employment of mezza voce at "Novissima hora est" is excellent.

In the opening solo of Part Two Gedda produces some lovely sounds but I do wonder if his approach doesnít sound just a little studied. The same comment applies to portions of his contribution to the dialogue with the Angel and though "Take me away" begins thrillingly the body of the solo seems a bit on the slow side, but whether this is down to Gedda, to Boult or to the two of them in alliance is open to question. Though Boultís direction of the whole score bespeaks wisdom and understanding there are a number of occasions, and not all of them involve Gedda, when I feel the pulse is a little too steady.

Helen Watts offers a warm and highly satisfying portrayal of the Angel. Sheís completely inside the role and Iíd describe her interpretation as "central" in terms of its performing tradition Ė I mean that as a compliment. She displays intelligence and a reassuring presence during the Dialogue in Part Two though I feel that the interactions between Nash and Ripley and between Lewis and Baker offer more. Among felicitous moments sheís gently radiant at "Thou shalt see thy Lord" and she gives a dedicated account of the Farewell.

The third soloist is Robert Lloyd. Heís sonorous as the Priest, singing the solo with great nobility and expression. Heís also quite magnificent as the Angel of the Agony and, for me, heís the pick of the singers that weíve heard so far who essay both roles. Interestingly, in another letter to Christopher Bishop quoted by Michael Kennedy, Boult expressed regret, after the sessions, that two singers hadnít been used. He commented, "the characters are so different, they should sound different too." Boult is quite right but Robert Lloyd comes closer than any other bass soloist to proving him wrong.

Boult benefits from an excellent chorus (the London Philharmonic) and orchestra (New Philharmonia). The orchestral strings deliver a hushed, translucent rendition of the Prelude to Part Two and throughout the recording the orchestral playing in all departments offers warmth or bite, as called for, and great distinction. As for the chorus, well they are fiery Demons. In this chorus they sing with punch and clarity. Later, the build up to "Praise to the Holiest" is splendidly controlled and realised by the singers and, of course, by Boult himself, while the great paean of praise at the start of the chorus, majestically paced, is a tremendous moment. As the chorus unfolds, the second section, from cue 89, where the choir divides into two, is delivered with exemplary clarity and when the pace hots up, from cue 95 onwards, the pacing strikes me as near ideal. All of this is captured in a vintage 1970s EMI recording of great warmth and clarity for which that fine team of Christopher Bishop (producer) and Christopher Parker (engineer) must take full credit. The original CD set suffered from one criminal presentational flaw with Part One broken between the two discs immediately before "Proficiscere". I think Iíve read somewhere that this horrible blunder was eradicated on subsequent reissues: I do hope so.

Iíd describe Boultís performance as "dedicated". It bears the stamp of all his accumulated experience and wisdom but for all that the drama is somewhat underplayed. The reading, while very satisfying on many levels, doesnít always set the pulse racing. For that reason I donít believe it can be counted as first choice but itís an essential chapter in the workís discography.

Ten years after the Boult performance and EMI recorded yet another performance of the work. This time it was led by Simon Rattle with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Chorus. Three soloists with distinguished pedigrees were lined up. Dame Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk each made their second recording of the work while the Gerontius, singing the role for the first time on record, was the erstwhile pupil of Heddle Nash, John Mitchinson. Here I must declare an interest for I have know John Mitchinson personally for some years, during which time Iíve heard and enjoyed him singing this role live on several occasions. I think itís interesting to note that Mitchinson essayed more of the heavy operatic tenor roles probably than any other tenor under consideration here. During the 1980s and 1990s he was Rattleís tenor of choice for such works as Das Lied von der Erde, Gurrelieder, and the Glagolitic Mass. Mitchinson is thus ideally equipped to be the most manly Gerontius on disc and he fulfils amply that expectation while at the same time being fully alive to the many sensitive nuances of the part.

His "Sanctus fortis" is powerful and commanding but the more reflective pages of that solo are equally well realised. He fines down his voice admirably for "Novissima hora est", floating the sound beautifully. All his experience as a character actor in opera comes to the fore in his singing in the opening paragraphs of Part Two and the cultivated nature of his singing brings a real distinction and many insights to his part in the Dialogue. Such passages as "But hark, a grand mysterious harmony" are here shown to benefit from the resources of an heroic tenor and, predictably, he makes the start of "Take me away" a thrilling yet anguished moment. At times on sustained notes the vibrato in his voice may distract some listeners though I donít find it a problem and certainly the vibrato doesnít affect the clarity of the notes in the way that, as we shall see, is a serious drawback in another recording.

Dame Janet had, by this time, over twenty years further experience as the Angel and this shows in a reading of great maturity. However, there are trade-offs with the Barbirolli set. To my ears her voice had darkened over the intervening years and I also find a greater degree of freshness in her traversal of the role for Barbirolli. Nonetheless her portrayal of the Angel remains deeply satisfying and she has a unique way of warming such phrases as "You cannot now cherish a wish" and "A presage falls upon thee." The Farewell is once again a deeply satisfying and consoling piece of singing. If, for me, her earlier rendition for Barbirolli remains preferable I still wouldnít wish to be without this marvellous example of her singing what was a signature role in the full maturity of her career.

John Shirley-Quirk sings the bass roles with the eloquence and dignity that one came to expect from this fine singer.

All Simon Rattleís famed attention to detail is in evidence on this set and, in fact, in terms of sheer beauty and refinement of orchestral sound this is probably the finest recording the work has received. The CBSO is on top form throughout, as is the CBSO chorus, and in consequence all the Big Moments make their full impact. However, Rattle is equally successful in realising the more intimate sections of the score, such as a gossamer light account of the Part Two Prelude. There are some moments when perhaps Iíd disagree gently with his choice of tempo but overall he seems to me to convey the shape and sweep of the work. Itís a little while since Iíve heard this performance right through. Returning to it and hearing it pitted against the competition, as it were, I was agreeably surprised to be reminded how good it is overall.

Another long-awaited recording appeared in 1993 when Vernon Handleyís interpretation was set down. In a neat reversal of the Sargent recordings the Huddersfield Choral Society travelled to Liverpool to link up in Philharmonic Hall with the RLPO and its chorus. The soloists were Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Michael George. I commented in detail on that recording when it was reissued in 2003 (see review). In summary, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson offers an excellent portrayal of Gerontius, albeit one that emphasises the lyrical aspects of the role Ė without short changing the dramatic moments. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is, perhaps, a little understated as the Angel and certainly doesnít "do" as much with the words as some of her rivals Ė or, indeed, Rolfe-Johnson. However, her portrayal is unaffected and sincere. Perhaps her subsequent appearance in the Andrew Davis DVD (see below) does her greater justice.

Vernon Handley draws marvellous playing from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and heís very well served by the combined Liverpool and Huddersfield choirs Ė he probably has the largest chorus on disc. And the performance benefits hugely from Handleyís own attention to detail and his profound understanding of the work. I bought this recording when it first came out and Iíve always felt that itís been underrated. As the performance is captured in very good sound, adding to the attractions of the set, this makes an excellent bargain recommendation.

Sir Andrew Davis made a number of well-received recordings of music by Elgar, principally for Warner Classics, while he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, now that he has moved on to the Chicago Lyric Opera and Warner Classics have pulled out of new classical recordings, it must be unlikely that heíll add Gerontius to his Elgar discography on CD. For those who admire his work in Elgar that makes all the more valuable a DVD of a live performance given in St. Paulís Cathedral, London, in November 1997. The recording is welcome also in that it captures Philip Langridgeís Gerontius, which is not otherwise represented on disc. The other two soloists, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Alastair Miles have appeared in other recordings Ė for Handley and Sir Colin Davis respectively.

Again, this is a recording on which I commented in full when it was first released (see review). Sir Andrew conducts a very convincing account of the score and Philip Langridge makes an excellent Gerontius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers also has much to offer, though I was a little less enthralled by the contributions of Alastair Miles. I see that the editors of The Penguin Guide 2008 rate this as "the finest recorded Gerontius ever." I wouldnít go that far, but itís a considerable achievement Ė and a far safer all round bet than the only other available live recording (see below). As far as Iím aware this is the only DVD release of the work to date so itís good news that this is such a recommendable version.

In the last year or so weíve seen two new recordings come onto the market, both on the own labels of the orchestras concerned. The first to appear, in 2006, was a live recording by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO, made in the previous December of one of the concerts (see review) from which this recording is taken. The soloists were David Rendall, a very late substitute for Ben Heppner, Anne Sofie von Otter and Alastair Miles. This reading need not detain us long, Iím afraid. It gives me no pleasure to say this as I admire Sir Colin greatly and his live recordings of the three symphonies for the same label confirm him to be a fine Elgarian.

On this recording the orchestra and chorus both perform superbly and, one or two points excepted, I find Sir Colinís interpretation convincing. What lets this performance down and rules it out of court is the soloists. Alastair Miles is a hectoring Priest, projecting his voice too forcefully and, in so doing, the dignity and prayerfulness essential to the role elude him completely. On the DVD discussed above, which I saw before this CD came along, I thought his stentorian projection of this role might be explained by his positioning on the platform. However, I doubt that this applies to his performance in the Barbican. The role of the Angel of the Agony suits him better.

Anne Sofie von Otter sings well enough but I find her approach cool and objective and I really do wonder how well she understands the role of the Angel. However, the setís real Achilles heel lies in the singing of David Rendall. Right from the start he sings with such a very wide and pronounced vibrato that, to be truthful, I often find it difficult to be sure of the precise pitch of the note he is singing. This applies at all levels of volume and it makes listening to him a real trial. Perhaps the microphone was too closely placed, but if so all that does is to exaggerate an unacceptable flaw in his singing. One must make allowance for the fact that he was a very late substitute Ė but that applies only to the first of the two concerts from which this recording is taken. I didnít see Jim Pritchardís concert review before I acquired this set. However, I note that he felt at the time that this performance of Gerontius should not be preserved on disc and I can only agree. In fairness I should add that Jim clearly enjoyed Miss von Otterís performance more than I did.

The most recent contender was the Birmingham recording, released to coincide with the Elgar 150th birthday weekend celebrations in 2007. Sakari Oramo led his CBSO forces in a studio recording taped in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in August and September 2006 (see review). Oramoís soloists were Justin Lavender, Jane Irwin and Peter Rose. On listening yet again for this survey Iíve come to the conclusion that Iím reluctant to recommend this set, though thatís a pity given the excellence of much of the enterprise. The playing and choral singing are superb and the recorded sound, which positively blossoms in the spacious acoustic of Symphony Hall, is easily the finest in any of the versions considered here. I like much of Sakari Oramoís conducting too, though I do part company with him over the choice of tempi in "Praise to the Holiest". Among the soloists Peter Rose is satisfactory and my admiration for Jane Irwinís assumption of the Angel has, if anything, increased. But Iím afraid the Gerontius of Justin Lavender is a major stumbling block for me. Even more than when I first heard the set I miss any real sense that he truly understands the spirituality behind the role. His lack of sensitivity is highlighted by his inattentiveness to soft dynamic markings. Iím afraid he simply wonít do. In the interests of balance, however, I ought to say that since I originally reviewed the set a very experienced critic, writing in another publication, has expressed the view that Lavender "offers nobility, variety, intelligence and understanding of his difficult part: he is always Ďinsideí it."

I concluded my review of the Oramo performance by saying that I felt the way was still open for a first class modern recording of Gerontius. Listening to all these versions yet again hasnít changed that view. I still cling to the hope that Mark Elder, who has so distinguished himself in Elgar recordings and performances in recent years, will set the work down with his Hallé forces before too long. I thought that his 2005 reading at the Henry Wood Proms was something special (see review). The recent repeat broadcast on Radio Three in mid-November simply confirmed that view. If he could replicate that in the studio then his would be a significant contender in the Gerontius stakes. Perhaps if Elder does make a recording he could be prevailed upon to engage Sarah Connolly as the Angel. Iíve heard her take the role in concert on a couple of occasions in recent years and Iíve no doubt that her portrayal of the Angel is urgently in need of preservation for posterity while sheís at the height of her powers.

Summing up

Does the ideal recording of The Dream of Gerontius exist? Is such a thing possible? The answer to both those questions must surely be in the negative for itís highly unlikely that a performance of any work of art can achieve perfection. And in any event one personís "ideal performance" will not strike another listener in the same way. But thatís not to diminish the achievements, both individual and collective, that are enshrined in some of the recordings discussed above. Indeed, of them all there are only a couple that Iíd decline to recommend.

All the rest have much to commend them. Brittenís version has many penetrating insights, though Pears as Gerontius will not be to everyoneís taste. Boultís performance exudes authority but, as with the Britten version, he has a controversial tenor in the title role. Vernon Handleyís version is as authoritative as Boultís and Iím much more attracted to both his Gerontius and his Angel than some other commentators have been. Of the modern versions I think the Rattle set is the best all-round choice.

But in the end one comes back to Sargent and Barbirolli. In the case of Sargent it has to be the 1945 version, despite the many merits of his later traversal. In fact, I choose the Sargent version not so much for the conducting as for the performers, and Heddle Nash especially. No Elgar enthusiastís collection should be without this performance: Nash is simply hors concours. However, for vision and inspirational conducting I keep coming back to ĎGlorious Johní. Itís true that Kim Borg is a grievous disappointment Ė a terrible piece of miscasting. But Lewis is still a very considerable Gerontius, even when slightly indisposed, and in the young Janet Baker Barbirolli has an incomparable Angel. When you add to that a choir and orchestra that perform as if their very lives depended on it then you have a Gerontius that is still unsurpassed. I confess that it was this version that moved me the most during my comparative listening and, surely, emotion as well as objective assessment is a major part of the evaluation of any musical performance.

Listening to all these recordings, each one of which has something to say to us about the work, has reminded me afresh how great a masterpiece is The Dream of Gerontius. On the manuscript full score of Gerontius Elgar inscribed some lines from a poem by John Ruskin. The quotation begins ĎThis is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another." He also wrote to a friend that he had "written my own heartís blood into the score." Hearing music of such blazing conviction and originality, particularly in Barbirolliís warm-hearted, dramatic and totally committed performance, who could doubt him?

John Quinn



 


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