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”.
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
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.
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.