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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius
, Op. 38 (1900) [97:16]
Jon Vickers (tenor); Constance Shacklock (contralto); Marian Nowkowski (bass)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. live, 20 November 1957, Rome. ADD
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique
, Op. 14 (1830) [50:54]
The Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 2 January 1947. ADD
[74:34 + 73:21]
Experience Classicsonline

When I compiled a survey of many of the available CD recordings of The Dream of Gerontius in 2007 I made passing reference to this recording since I had owned a copy for several years. However, I didn’t do a detailed appraisal since I wasn’t sure if it was widely available. Now the performance has been restored to general circulation by Archipel. The version I have had in my collection is on the Arkadia label (2CDHP584). Any collectors who have that set can rest content unless they want the Berlioz coupling offered by Archipel; I couldn’t detect any appreciable difference between the two transfers.

This recording of Gerontius captures a live performance given in Rome in November 1957 when Barbirolli directed the chorus and orchestra of the Italian broadcasting organisation, RAI. He was obviously pleased with the results for, in his biography of the conductor (Barbirolli. Conductor Laureate, 1971) Michael Kennedy cites a letter to him from JB in which he writes that he was “Longing to tell you of the wonderful performance of the Dream they gave me here … Chorus was absolutely incredible, and I don’t think I have ever heard it sung better”.

Barbirolli went on to make a celebrated studio recording for EMI in 1964. Interpretatively, there are few significant differences between the two performances. Inspired, perhaps, by the heat of the moment, JB lingers a little more on occasions in this Rome account but the only thing that really caught my ear was the treatment of the wind and brass passage immediately before “Take me away.” In the 1964 recording it’s taken broadly but here it’s so stately as to be sluggish. One other thing that one must remark is JB’s audible groans. You can often hear these, even in studio performance but here they’re especially noticeable, for example at “Be merciful” in Part I. I think the soloists must have been positioned close to him and he is probably picked up by their microphones. 

For Elgar collectors the chief interest will lie in the presence of the Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers, in the title role. At the time of this performance Vickers had just turned thirty-one. This was also the year of his Covent Garden debut and here he is in fine voice with few histrionic touches. I don’t know how often he’d sung the role before, nor if he continued to keep it in his repertoire but he proves to be a convincing exponent on this occasion. I think Elgar would have rejoiced to hear such an heroic tenor voice in the role but equally I’m sure he would have noted with approval how sensitive Vickers is to the more subtle nuances. Following the score, it seemed to me that Vickers was pretty attentive to Elgar’s copious markings. I noticed a little catch in the voice at “’tis this strange innermost abandonment” and there’s another such instance later on in the work but these are not distracting at all and I only mention them as evidence that this is truly a live account, with no opportunity for retakes.

Vickers gives a firm, manly account of “Sanctus fortis”. In this crucial solo he does press the tempo forward once or twice, such is his urgency, but that’s an observation, not a criticism, and Barbirolli is alert and follows him. In the lento passage at cue 53, where Gerontius sings “Sanctus fortis” quietly – the marking is piangendo – Vickers employs a wonderful soft head voice. The singing is beautiful though I feel the tempo is a bit too indulgent at this point. But Barbirolli goes to the other extreme in the orchestral passage before “I can no more”. There’s an electrifying urgency here that he didn’t quite repeat in the EMI recording.

At the start of Part II Vickers sings a bit too loudly but, then, the orchestral prelude is also louder than it should be. However, he’s excellent at “How still it is”. The duet with the Angel goes well, though I think Vickers is too dominant when both soloists sing together after “A presage falls upon thee.” The one problem that I have with Vickers’ performance – and, alas, it’s not insignificant – is his singing in the very last solo. The great cry “Take me away” is splendid; the voice has a wonderful ring. But thereafter, Vickers becomes too emotional and in overdoing the emotional he sounds lachrymose. It’s a pity that, at the end of what has been in so many ways a wonderful performance, the last impression he leaves is less than favourable. However, this is a significant reading of the title role.

His Angel is Constance Shacklock (1913-1999). She is a true contralto and this pays off in several low-lying passages, such as “for we are come into the veiled presence of our God”, where the bottom B flats are full and secure. I suspect that Vickers may not have performed Gerontius too often before this concert but Constance Shacklock must have been steeped in the English oratorio tradition and it shows. Her performance is authoritative and straightforward; at all times it’s evident that she’s fully inside the role. From the outset her voice is round and firm and I love the way she veils her tone at the first “Alleluia” in her opening solo.

She’s warm at “You cannot now cherish a wish” and at “A presage falls”. However, when she sings “It is because Then thou didst fear” her pitching goes momentarily awry. Again, this small flaw is the price one pays for live recording but I’m content to live with that in the interests of spontaneity. Her singing of the Farewell is warm and consoling and I think her whole performance will give great satisfaction to listeners.

When Barbirolli recorded Gerontius for EMI the bass solos were sung by Kim Borg and I’m far from alone in feeling that he was the weak link in the performance, not least on account of his English pronunciation. On this occasion also Barbirolli was given – or chose - a big-voiced European bass, in this case the Pole, Marian Nowkowski (1912-2000).  He’s more satisfactory than Borg was to be in 1964 but I’m afraid I don’t feel that he’s all that suited to the bass roles, though his voice falls more pleasingly on the ear than Borg’s. As the Priest he’s sonorous but I find his delivery too ponderous. As the Angel of the Agony he certainly has the requisite power but he overdoes the expression. Singers such as Robert Lloyd or John Shirley-Quirk are much to be preferred in these solos.

In his biography of Sir William Walton (Portrait of Walton, 1990) Michael Kennedy writes that Walton, who heard the broadcast - at his home in Ischia, I presume - was “impressed by the impeccable diction” of the choir. This surprises me for Walton presumably heard over the airwaves pretty much what we hear on these CDs and I have to say that I find the choir’s diction anything but impeccable. Indeed, even following in the score I often found it difficult to hear what the choir is actually singing. When one can hear the words I’m afraid their English pronunciation is definitely an acquired taste – though I suspect an English choir singing in Italian in the late 1950s would have fared little better; standards have improved over the years.

That said, they clearly sing their hearts out for Barbirolli and though the rather rounded Italian tone is not what we’re used to in English oratorio, their quiet singing is particularly impressive. They sing “Praise to the Holiest” with great fervour and if they sound a little foursquare at times in this chorus the end is thrilling. In Part I Barbirolli inspires them to great urgency at “Rescue him” and in the final chorus of Part I they attack “Go in the name of angels and archangels” with vigour. In the Demon’s Chorus they do well to keep up with JB’s electrifying pace at “Dispossess’d” but the singing in this chorus is exciting. In the end, though, what vitiates much of the choir’s contribution is that they’re set too far back in the aural perspective and much of their singing is indistinct.

We can hear the orchestra to much better advantage. They too respond to Barbirolli very positively and the strings in particular often play very sweetly for him though, as previously mentioned, they don’t achieve a true pp at the start of Part II. The brass are sometimes a bit coarse and the recorded sound does show its age where the orchestra - and choir - is concerned but they clearly do their very best for Barbirolli.

As I commented in my survey, this performance really adds nothing to our view of Barbirolli’s interpretation of Gerontius and his EMI recording is still the one to go for, especially as the sound is so much better, as are the choral and orchestral contributions. However, the performances of both Jon Vickers and Constance Shacklock are compelling and so this issue is well worth the attention of collectors.

There’s a generous and interesting coupling in the shape of Barbirolli’s 1947 recording with the Hallé of Symphonie Fantastique. Archipel give a single recording date. However, I’m pretty certain that this is the recording made for EMI which is also available on Dutton (CDEA5504). The Dutton documentation indicates that the recording was made over several days, 2-4 January, 12 May and 4 June 1947, though the recording certainly has the feel of a continuous performance. Listening to both discs I’m as certain as I can be that the two are identical and I could detect little difference between the transfers. It’s a fine performance and very well played, indicating just how far JB had brought his orchestra in a mere four years under working conditions that were often far from easy.

The work is ideally suited to Barbirolli. He clearly relishes the full-blooded romantic sweep of the piece but he’s just as sensitive to the many subtleties in the score. So the introduction to the first movement brings forth some refined playing from the Hallé. JB plays the waltz with more than a touch of Vienna and I like the discreet but telling use of portamento. There’s some very sensitive tone-painting in the third movement. The ‘Marche au supplice’ is exciting, though Barbirolli is sufficiently wise to keep a fairly tight rein on the music. The finale is suitably gothic and though the playing of the low brass occasionally verges on the coarse in this movement I strongly suspect this was no accident. Overall, this is an incandescent and committed recording.

Admirers of Barbirolli will certainly want to investigate these examples of a much-loved maestro at work in pieces that were in his blood. There is no documentation at all other than a track-listing.

John Quinn




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