Given the inadequately
prepared first performance in Birmingham
there is a strong element of bravery
in Birmingham forces recording The
Dream of Gerontius. The shortcomings
of that notorious Birmingham Festival.
premiere in 1900 were largely due Elgar’s
late completion of the work. The period
allowed for the performers to learn
it let alone understand its unfamiliar
idiom was far too short. That said,
the main characteristic of the present
recording is the very detailed care
with which all of Elgar’s immensely
careful instructions have been followed.
There is a strong sense of nothing being
taken for granted or of avoiding simply
following the performance tradition
which has grown up around the work.
For the very detailed rehearsal which
must have been necessary to achieve
this both Sakari Oramo as conductor
and Simon Halsey as Chorus Director
are greatly to be thanked. If overall
there is some element of disappointment
it is not due to them.
There is a fervour
and sense of drama about the contributions
of the chorus and orchestra that wholly
avoids any sense of the routine. The
different roles of the former – Assistants
on earth, Demons, Angelicals and so
on – are all clearly defined in terms
of phrasing and vocal tone. Textures
in the orchestra are clarified by the
simple expedient of giving minute attention
to Elgar’s ever-changing instructions
in respect of phrasing and dynamics.
Problems start however
when it comes to the three soloists.
I suspect that most listeners will hear
inwardly their own favourite Gerontius,
perhaps Heddle Nash or Richard Lewis
or maybe a more modern singer. Anyone
attempting this role has to make it
their own, and to convince the listener
that they are really "living" - perhaps
not a good choice of word - the part.
It is here that I remain unconvinced
by Justin Lavender. He has many virtues,
not least that he is neither effete
nor crude, and his tone and manner does
suggest an old man with experience of
life. His diction is secure as is his
intonation, even if his vibrato may
at times be thought excessive. There
is little variety of dynamic – certainly
not as much as Elgar indicates – and
there is a lack of involvement in the
drama. The lengthy monologue at the
start of Part II has no sense of real
emotional engagement, and the dialogue
with the Angel has no feeling that the
characters are listening to each other.
Things improve greatly towards the end,
with a splendidly secure "Take me away"
and much more variety of expression,
but by this stage the damage has been
done. The work should focus on the progress
of Gerontius from death to afterlife.
It is crucial that the listener should
be able to focus on him and identify
with him on the journey that we all
The other two soloists
are much more satisfactory, in particular
in their use of the words - the diction
of all three is admirable. Peter Rose
makes much of his two parts, especially
the Angel of the Agony who sounds less
monotonous than is sometimes the case.
His Priest is suitably dignified if
less characterful. Jane Irwin’s attention
to the details of dynamic and phrasing
in her part pays real dividends.
Overall, and despite
the strong reservations I have about
Justin Lavender’s Gerontius, this is
a fresh and imaginative performance,
and the set is well worth having, probably
best as an alternative to the familiar
Barbirolli, Sargent or Boult versions.
The two shorter works
add greatly to its attraction. The Enigma
Variations have the same freshness and
clarity as the main work, with textures
beautifully controlled and clarified.
One great virtue is that, although Nimrod
has great dignity and is wonderfully
built from an almost inaudible start,
there is no sense of it comprising the
heart or worse still the end of the
work as is too often the case. The emphasis
is rightly on the Finale ("E.D.U.")
which properly includes the essential
organ part. Some early pressings of
the set had a massive and disconcerting
cut in this Variation but this has now
been put right.
The first and shortest
work on the set is also the least familiar.
Elgar’s skills as an orchestrator and
arranger are well known but this version
of "The Holly and the Ivy" made for
the Worcester Philharmonic Society,
of which he was one of the founders,
was only recently rediscovered and by
a lucky accident. The tune is not the
familiar doleful melody but a French
tune Elgar found in one of Novello’s
"Octavo" series. The varied arrangements
of each verse keep the listener’s interest
alive although it might have been better
to have reduced the overlong silences
between verses. This is a piece that
would add welcome variety to the many
carol concerts up and down the country
that rely on the same small number of
arrangers and arrangements.
The attractions of
the set are enhanced by the handsome
packaging - no fiddly and easily broken
plastic case. In addition there are
good notes and the text of the main
work is included.
see also review
by John Quinn