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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900) [94:21]
CD 1 Part I [37:20]
CD 2 Part II [57:01]
Alice Coote (mezzo) - The Angel; Paul Groves (tenor) – Gerontius; Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) - The Priest and The Angel of The Agony
Hallé Choir; Hallé Youth Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 15-19 July 2008
English text included
HALLÉ CD HLD 7520 [37:20 + 57:01]

Experience Classicsonline

Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, completed in 1900 for the Birmingham Festival, is one of the cornerstones of the choral repertoire. As such there are many recordings available, including an earlier one from the Hallé conducted by Sir John Barbirolli in 1964; so this new disc is up against some formidable competition.

The oratorio uses a poem written by Cardinal Newman in 1865 and is in two parts. Part 1 deals with the death of Gerontius, and Part 2 with the journey the soul takes after death. In style, it is 'through composed': there are no set 'numbers' as in, say a Handel oratorio. Somewhat Wagnerian in style, Elgar also uses a series of leitmotifs to unify it musically. It is scored for a large orchestra (including organ), three soloists, a full mixed choir, and a semi-chorus. In this recording the semi-chorus is taken by the Hallé Youth Choir, a choice which yields interesting results.

The work opens with an orchestral prelude which uses some of the important themes signifying moods or feelings which will be heard again later. Elder follows the tempo markings and dynamics scrupulously. It is interesting to compare this with the recordings by Barbirolli in 1964, Boult in 1974, and Colin Davis in 2005 - this last recorded live in the LSO Live series. Barbirolli allows the woodwind, particularly the cor anglais, to dominate giving a distinctive almost keening quality. Elder and Boult favour a more integrated, balanced sound. At the climactic march theme Boult plays as marked Molto Largamente, in a stately, broad tempo. Elder, Barbirolli and Davis maintain a quicker pace and so lose out a little in the grandeur of the theme. In the sections alluding to prayer all play with the utmost subtlety and delicacy.

This Prelude leads into a long monologue for Gerontius. A most difficult part to sing as the performer must be able to change moods quickly; sing in a declamatory fashion one moment and then softly and delicately the next. Indeed, some of the words are in parentheses which signify interruptions to his main train of thought. Paul Groves, a relative newcomer to this role, sings with all the necessary feeling for the words and follows Elgar's dynamic markings sensitively. He carefully dovetails his lines with those of the choir for the semi-chorus "Kyrie" so the choir is almost an extension of the soloist; and similarly at the choir entry "Be merciful".

The "Sanctus fortis" is delivered with an heroic ring to the voice which is pared down for the reprise at figure 53 marked piangendo - literally crying or weeping. There are many examples of this type of 'word-painting' in this performance which stands it apart from others available.

Part 2 presents us with Gerontius's soul being transported to be judged. This now requires the singer to display a refinement which one gets from a lieder singer. Paul Groves manages this with great aplomb. Listen to his first entry "I went to sleep" ; and in the duet with Alice Coote's angel where the voices intertwine beautifully. The only criticism is in the final "Take me away" where he does not quite have the sound of pain and anguish that say, Richard Lewis for Barbirolli has. Lewis obviously brings years of experience singing this role to the fore. I will say that Colin Davis's recording is severely compromised by the unsteady singing and variable pitching of David Rendall. Nicolai Gedda, on the other hand, for Boult gives a satisfactory performance in very good, idiomatic English.

I was looking forward to hearing Bryn Terfel singing the part of The Priest. Brass chords introduce the solo "Proficiscere, anima Christiana", and this is the first real disappointment on the disc. I find the tone is raw and unsteady in the opening phrases. Walter Legge, the famous record producer, noted that the first solo lies happily for a high baritone and the solo in Part 2 for a lower basso cantante - he would cast two singers for this. Once past the opening phrases Terfel seems to settle down into a more comfortable sound and, as with the tenor, observes the dynamic markings. He delivers a fine performance as one would expect from an artist of this calibre. It is interesting to compare the opening of this section with Boult's bass Robert Lloyd, and Colin Davis's Alistair Miles; both Verdian basses who deliver the opening with a steadier, more majestic sound. The Angel of the Agony in Part 2 suits Terfel better and he gives a forthright account skilfully preparing the way for Gerontius to appear before his judge.

Alice Coote as The Angel only appears in the second part. She follows a distinguished line of singers in this role: Janet Baker (Barbirolli), Helen Watts (Boult), Yvonne Minton (Britten), and even some surprises including Anne Sophie von Otter (Colin Davis). She is fully inside the role and gives us a distinguished rendition. Listen to the repeated Alleluias, each with its own inflection. The passage beginning "A presage falls upon thee" is given with warmth and intensity very much in the Janet Baker mould. The final farewell has a heartfelt intensity as the soul is sent on its way. This singer can proudly stand with the greatest exponents of this role. Janet Baker is a well known quantity in this and, I believe, has yet to be surpassed. Helen Watts, is an interesting performer as she is more of a contralto than a mezzo-soprano giving an unexpected gravitas to some of the music. However she is tested by some of the high-lying lines.

The contribution of the choirs is important in any performance of Gerontius and the present line-up certainly brings its rewards. The use of a youth choir for the semi-chorus parts brings an interesting contrast of timbre to the main adult choir. The transitions from one to the other are managed seamlessly. The only other recording with a young choir for the semi-chorus is Benjamin Britten's where he uses the Choir of King's College. There are many places where this contrast produces a magical effect. In Part 1, the chanting "Noe from the waters in a saving home" contrasted against the "Amen" from the full choir is a magical moment and an inspired piece of writing. Similarly affecting, toward the end of Part 1, is the passage where the sopranos and altos sing in octaves to the words "The holy mount of Zion" - perfectly balanced and in tune. I could go on.

The main Hallé Choir's contribution is nothing short of magnificent. The way this group project the text and have mastered the varying styles required to be angels one moment then demons the next, is thrilling. They can produce the most exquisite pianissimos and earth-shattering fortissimos in equal measure and even a real crescendo at the end of the "Praise to the holiest" section, raising the roof of the Bridgewater Hall. The soft singing is a delight which does not lose focus, always a danger for a big choir.

What of Mark Elder's interpretation? Well, he is carefully observant of all the markings in the score. The dynamics are scrupulously observed, as are all the small changes in tempo. As an example listen to the opening of Part 2 . In 26 bars of music before the entry of the tenor there are 8 tempo changes and about a dozen dynamic marks or changes. All of them are observed which gives this passage a luminous quality entirely apt for the soul's onward journey and the description in Cardinal Newman's poem. There are numerous examples of the care and attention to detail taken by the conductor, particularly in the quiet passages. However, this is not done to the detriment of the overall architecture of the piece. Elder's vision is achieved by setting these details into the overall plan, so that like a cathedral, this huge edifice is hung with a multitude of details which creates a satisfying whole.

The recording is well captured and a myriad details have been caught by the engineers. The Bridgewater Hall acoustic gives the sound a natural bloom and the various elements, orchestra, soloists, and choirs have been well balanced.

The booklet has an informative essay from Michael Kennedy, information about the performers, and full text.

Does this performance live up to the Elgar tradition in Manchester? The answer is a emphatically Yes. The baton has been passed to a new generation of performers who are doing Elgar proud. This is a fine achievement from all concerned. In spite of my reservations about Bryn Terfel this performance would be an asset to any record collection.

Arther Smith

see also review by John Quinn





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