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Availability visa mail order from CBSO Centre, Berkeley Street, Birmingham B1 2LF, by telephone on 0121 616 6500 or from Farringdons record shop in Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38* (1899) [86:31]
Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’, Op. 36 (1899) [29:16]
The Holly and The Ivy** (1898) [4:58]
*Jane Irwin (mezzo); Justin Lavender (tenor); Peter Rose (bass)* **
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 27, 29, 30 August, 1 September 2006. DDD
** world première recording
CBSO CD003 [68:11 + 52:56]

Sound Sample

Released on 1 June 2007, to coincide with the Elgar birthday weekend, this set constitutes a handsome tribute to the composer who many, myself included, regard as England’s premier composer. It marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. Yet it was almost ‘The Set that Never Was’ for the recordings were originally intended for the Warner Classics label and nearly fell victim to that company’s decision in 2006 to cease making new classical recordings. Happily, the CBSO determined to press ahead and they have made and released the recording themselves. I hope that their enterprise and dedication to Elgar’s cause will be rewarded with strong sales and that, thus emboldened, the orchestra will go on to make further recordings and issue these themselves.

Whether intentionally or not, the choice of music on this set is very clever and illuminating for it gives us a snapshot of Elgar at a creative crossroads. It’s not often that the two works that really made his name – the Enigma Variations and Gerontius – are juxtaposed. It’s valuable to have them gathered together as here.

It’s also very revealing that those two pieces are accompanied by a minor but interesting novelty from about the same time. This is Elgar’s arrangement for chorus and orchestra of The Holly and The Ivy. Since this little piece will be unknown to most collectors, as it was to me, the story behind it, as related in Michael Foster’s notes, is worth telling in summary. It was one of several orchestral accompaniments to carols that Elgar wrote in 1898 for the Worcester Philharmonic Society. He had been one of the Society’s founders in the previous year and he was their conductor. These arrangements apparently used old French carol tunes – so what we hear is not the traditional English tune, which makes a very pleasant change. In fact I have never heard this lilting compound time tune before but it fits the words very well. The carol was performed in 1898 but the manuscript was then lost and only came to light quite by chance in 1970 when it was discovered in an antiques shop in the Worcestershire town of Bewdley. The setting was revived by the CBSO at the 2005 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester.

The trouble with some carols like The Holly and The Ivy – and, even more so, The First Nowell - is that they consist of quite a number of verses and it’s difficult to leave any of them out without destroying the sense of the carol yet the piece can be wearyingly repetitive. The problem is surmounted here by skilful variations in the orchestral accompaniment to each verse. Thus the interest lies not just in the unfamiliar tune but also in what’s going on in the accompaniment underneath. I think this is a charming little setting. It’s light and fresh and I’m glad it’s been rediscovered. One tantalising question arises, the answer to which is not clear from the notes: what were the other carol arrangements and did they come to light at the same time or are they lost forever?

In his book Portrait of Elgar Michael Kennedy poses the question: What if Elgar had died in 1898? As he reminds us, Elgar was then beginning work on the Enigma Variations but at that point his reputation, had he died, would have rested on works such as the overture Froissart and cantatas such as Caractacus and King Olaf, works which have many merits but which do not represent Elgar as the composer of genius and great stature that he became. The import of that question is given additional force by hearing The Holly and The Ivy next to the Variations and Gerontius. I mean no discourtesy when I say that it reminds us forcefully of the quantum leap that he made between 1898 and 1900 from the obscure provincial composer to the great creative artist we so admire and respect today.

Oramo offers a very good performance of Enigma, which has the twin merits of bringing the various portraits to life while not doing so through any egregious distortions of the music. Though the members of the CBSO must be able to play this music in their sleep it never sounds hackneyed or routine. On the contrary, there’s a freshness about the performance that I much admire. Thus the theme, which represents Elgar himself is unfolded nobly and the first variation, representing Alice Elgar, comes across as the theme’s "other half", as is right and proper. The fifth variation, ‘R.P.A.’, has a rich hue but Oramo never wallows in the music, which he shapes quite beautifully. ‘Troyte’ bounds along splendidly and ‘W.N.’ is very gracious.

The great ninth variation, ‘Nimrod’, is ushered in by really hushed playing. Oramo unfolds this piece with warmth and nobility. But, crucially, he keeps the music moving forward at all times and it grows continually. Despite the elegiac connotations that have grown up around this movement it is most emphatically not an elegy – after all, Elgar’s great friend, Jaeger, who is depicted here, was still very much alive at the time it was composed. It’s salutary to read the reaction of Dora Penny – ‘Dorabella’ of the very next variation – when Elgar played her the score at the piano and she heard the music for the very first time. Of ‘Nimrod’ she said: "That must be a wonderful person, when am I going to meet him?" To which the response was: "Oh, you will like him, he is the dearest person …" No hint of mourning there and there’s no hint of it in Oramo’s reading either. In fact for me this ‘Nimrod’ is just right.

He brings out nicely the charming little hesitations in ‘Dorabella’, aided by great delicacy in the CBSO’s playing. ‘G.R.S.’ is properly headlong and then the strings really sing out in ‘B.G.N.’ What a wonderful line Elgar gives them! The one little disappointment is that in the ‘Romanza’ I can’t hear the evocative distant timpani roll, even through headphones, which is a pity since the reading is otherwise most atmospheric. Then, to conclude, Oramo treats us to a bracing, surging ‘E.D.U.’ with a splendidly telling contribution from the Symphony Hall organ to enrich the final pages. In this finale the work is not exactly brought full circle but we see the other side of Elgar. Here all is confidence, in sharp contrast to the uncertain melancholy of the theme at the very start. It’s as if Elgar is saying to us, "look what strength I get from ‘my friends pictured within.’" This is a very satisfying and faithful performance. I like Oramo’s Enigma very much.

I find parts of his reading of Gerontius a bit more problematic. I should say at once that there’s a great deal to admire. The CBSO’s playing is just as accomplished and rich-toned as was the case in Enigma. In both works the orchestral sound is securely founded on a bass that is deep and full but never overpowering. The CBSO chorus also sing splendidly and they make a very satisfying contribution to Part One. In Part Two, supported by some splendidly incisive playing from the CBSO, they produce a very exciting sound in The Demon’s Chorus. My one reservation is that in this section they don’t sound nasty enough most of the time. This is music depicting unpleasant beings and I think a touch of nasal roughness and a willingness to snarl is very much in order but we don’t quite get that. When they do snarl – for example at the words "and pious cheats" – the effect is very good: I’d have welcomed a bit more of this during this section. I’ll comment on ‘Praise to the Holiest’ in a moment. For now, suffice to say that the choir makes a sterling effort in that chorus and meets all the demands placed on them. Finally, they play a full part in the very successful realisation of the ‘Angel’s farewell’.

In that last scene of the work the mezzo-soprano, Jane Irwin, is to the fore, of course. I was very impressed with her contributions to Oramo’s recent concert performances of Apostles and Kingdom. Here, with a much larger part to sing she amply confirms those favourable impressions. Miss Irwin has a lovely, rich tone, which is well nigh ideal for this role. Wisely she doesn’t attempt to over-interpret the role. Instead she sings simply, directly and with great sincerity and puts her own individual stamp on the performance.

She impresses right from the start. Her first phrases are lovely, culminating in a hushed "Alleluia", at the bar after cue 15, which is seemingly delivered on a thread of breath. Her singing of "There was a mortal" is dedicated and, like all the rest of her singing, extremely communicative and the passage in which she leads up to the appearance of the Angel of the Agony is tremendously expressive. Then "Praise to His Name" is exultant, climaxing on a thrilling top A. Finally, she caps a splendid performance with a lovely account of the Farewell. Here she’s consoling and reassuring and little details like the gentle emphasis she places on the words "most loving arms" typifies the care and thoughtfulness of her approach. In summary, this is a moving and dedicated assumption of the role and I admired and enjoyed it in equal measure.

Justin Lavender in the title role doesn’t quite match Miss Irwin’s achievement. He has much going for him. He has a strong, clear, ringing tone and his vocal production is very even throughout the whole compass of the voice. He has lots of power, the top notes come easily to him and he seems to have an almost inexhaustible supply of breath, which allows him to sing in splendidly long phrases. Thus, for example, "Take me away", though taken very broadly by Oramo, is accomplished without a break.

So there’s quite a bit on the positive side of the ledger for Lavender. However, other aspects are not quite so satisfactory. To be fair, Elgar sets his tenor an almost insuperable challenge. The soloist needs at times the vocal amplitude of a heldentenor but, equally, long stretches of the role, in Part Two especially, require the subtlety and intimacy of a lieder singer. Unfair the challenge may be, but several other tenors have met it successfully on disc. Justin Lavender sometimes seems a bit lacking in the subtle aspects of the role.

So, for instance when we first encounter Gerontius on his deathbed Lavender doesn’t really suggest to me that he is "near to death". There’s no real evidence of fear or physical pain in the voice. Just to check I listened to Richard Lewis in the 1964 Barbirolli recording and at once one hears a singer who is much more hushed and inward and one who convinces as a dying man. He finds - and conveys - more in the text than does Lavender. At "Rouse thee my fainting soul" Gerontius gathers himself, and here the virility in Lavender’s singing is appropriate. Similarly, he begins ‘Sanctus, fortis’ in a big, manly fashion, which is fine, but after a while I found his timbre and volume in this solo were a bit unvaried though Elgar often asks for more dynamic contrast. He’s very good in the anguished cry of "O Jesu, help" and gives us a superb, ringing top B flat at "in Thine own agony" but there are other passages in the ‘Sanctus, fortis’ where Richard Lewis offers much more – for instance at "in that manhood crucified". A cruelly demanding test comes at "Novissima hora est". Lavender is satisfactory but he lacks the eloquent head voice of Heddle Nash or the sweeter-toned frailty of Lewis. I should say straightaway that some listeners may find those two singers of an earlier age too emotional, in which case Lavender’s more direct style may appeal.

In Part Two he sings the opening soliloquy well enough but I don’t sense sufficient mystery or wonder in the singing. Nor does he impart the sense of wonder that there should surely be at the soul’s first glimpse of the Angel – "It is a member of that family of wondrous beings". However, at the end of the dialogue with the Angel, when the singers combine in duet at cue 27, the balancing is very good and Lavender’s strong, even tone falls pleasingly on the ear. He has just the right timbre and power for the brief solo phrase "the sound is like the rushing of the wind" but, sadly, I hear no sense of awe or trepidation at "I go before my judge". I’ve already mentioned his superb, elongated phrasing at the start of "Take me away" and the way he lets the last note of that phrase die away gradually is absolutely ideal. His account of this last aria is generally good. I’m sorry to express these reservations about Justin Lavender’s performance. Others may respond much more positively because, as I hope I’ve shown, there’s a lot to appreciate in his performance but I just think he could have found even more in the role.

The bass Peter Rose has two very contrasting solos. It seems to me that the role of the Angel of the Agony suits his sonorous voice and his style more than does the part of the Priest. As the Priest I think he’s a bit too emphatic – he sounds to command the soul of Gerontius rather than commend it. He has an unfortunate vocal mannerism, which I found irritating on repeated hearings, in that he has a tendency to add an "a" sound at the end of some words. Thus in his second solo we hear – or I do – "and-a bid them-a come to Thee." There are several similar examples in each solo and it’s a pity - but it may not bother other listeners.

And what of the conducting of Sakari Oramo? Well, this too must be a slightly mixed report. He’s evidently thought very carefully about this score and he has the advantage of coming to it unburdened by the English Tradition of playing it. The performance has been scrupulously prepared and he clearly loves the music very much. The opening Prelude is very well shaped and he gets the orchestra to play it superbly. The moderato at cue 9 sounds somewhat brisk and I think that there’s something of a loss of grandeur as a result. But perhaps Oramo doesn’t think this passage should sound grand and he may have a point for, as best as I could measure it, his speed is crotchet = 104, which isn’t that far above the marked 92.

Where I do think he’s a little hasty is at "Be merciful" (cue 34) where he’s well above the marked speed of crotchet = 54. As a result what should be an implacable tread in the bass line doesn’t make the proper effect. However, I like the clarity he achieves in the preceding chorus, "Holy Mary", where every choral strand can be heard. Oramo achieves wonderfully luminous textures in the short prelude to Part Two. He handles the dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel very well, achieving a good sense of fluidity. The Demon’s Chorus is, on one level, tremendously exciting but the pace is hectic. Frankly, I think it’s just a bit too hectic, especially in the fugal episode at "Dispossessed, aside thrust, chuck’d down". Tellingly, for all the clarity of the choir’s singing, they can’t articulate clearly the words "despot’s will" and that suggests to me that the pace is just a notch too brisk. And when Jane Irwin sings "It is the restless panting.." in the middle of this chorus she sounds rushed and a bit discomfited by the pace.

A little later, at the start of the build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ Oramo gets some marvellous singing from the ladies of the choir. Once again, every strand of the music is clear and although some passages sound a bit fleet he conveys a splendid air of innocence and purity, which is just right. But his treatment of the big chorus itself will be, I think, the most controversial aspect of this performance. A lot of it seems impossibly fast to me. I think he misses some of the grandeur in the opening shout of praise (cue 74) but on the other hand he doesn’t pull the music back at this point so much as to distort it, in the way that his predecessor in Birmingham, Sir Simon Rattle, did on his EMI recording. However, parts of the chorus that follow are disconcertingly – indeed, startlingly - fast. Comparative timings may be instructive here, covering the music from "And now the threshold" to the end of the chorus. Oramo gets through this in 5:44. Elgar himself, in his live 1927 recording (EMI, The Elgar Edition, Vol. 1) takes 6:54. Among more recent comparators Rattle takes 7:20, Barbirolli (EMI, 1964) 8:57 and Sargent (HMV, 1945, now on Testament) 8:19.

I guess that what Oramo intended to convey is a headlong, onrushing paean of praise. It’s certainly a fresh perspective on the score and in a sense it’s exhilarating but with the best will in the world I have to say that I feel the music is rushed off its feet at times. The choir and orchestra respond to these extraordinary demands tremendously and Oramo always maintains control but I can imagine a listener who doesn’t know the words having trouble knowing what the choir is singing about. On balance I think several of the speeds for this chorus are misjudged.

So, how to sum up this new Gerontius? Well the orchestral playing and choral singing are as good as you could wish to hear. The performance boasts a very fine Angel and there’s much to admire in the conducting of Sakari Oramo, who demonstrates a tremendous grip on the score. Against that must be set one or two instances of controversial speeds and a Gerontius who delivers some thrilling passages but who, one thinks, could have dug a bit more deeply into the role. I much prefer this recording to the recent Colin Davis/LSO Live version but in the end the hegemony of the Heddle Nash/Sargent and Lewis/Barbirolli versions is not challenged. The way is still open for a first class modern recording of this wonderful score. Based on his superb Proms performance in 2005 – with an outstanding Gerontius in Paul Groves and the Hallé Choir and Orchestra giving their all – Mark Elder could well be the man to deliver that.

I should add that the recorded sound for this set is magnificent – and much to be preferred to the LSO Live recording. The engineers have used the resonance of the empty Symphony Hall to excellent effect and have captured the performances in realistic, clear sound. The great crash immediately before ‘Take me away’ is absolutely thrilling – but make sure the neighbours are out! The documentation, including the full texts is first rate.

Notwithstanding the reservations I’ve expressed about aspects of Gerontius this is a noteworthy set and a handsome 150th anniversary tribute to the man who was the first conductor of what was then the City Of Birmingham Orchestra. My reservations about Gerontius are subjective, inevitably, and if collectors have the chance to sample before purchasing they may find that they don’t share them. I hope this enterprising CBSO own-label release will be the first of many for those who don’t live close to Birmingham should have more opportunities to sample the fruitful partnership between Sakari Oramo and the CBSO.

John Quinn.



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