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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 (1900) [86:31]
Variations on an original theme (Enigma) Op. 36 (1899) [29:16]
The Holly and the Ivy (arrangement) (1897) [4:58]
Jane Irwin (mezzo – Angel); Justin Lavender (tenor – Gerontius/Soul); Peter Rose (bass – Priest and Angel of the Agony)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. August, September 2006, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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 must make.

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.

John Sheppard

see also review by John Quinn




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