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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


There is an extensive and involving review of this recording on site by John Quinn who has also written some important personal observations regarding Gerontius on record. I’d strongly suggest you read it if you’re taken by the work.

My own comments are much more to be read as footnotes to JQ’s own review as I don’t think there’s much mileage in attempting to cover the same ground. A word first about the recording – very good, though perhaps a little mushy at climaxes; things don’t register with the overwhelming force they might. That said the various choral contributions do register well, as does the important organ - and in particular the percussion. You will certainly hear details that in other recordings are elided. Balances are well judged. The tempi are unremarkable in themselves but consistent and convincing; neither as dynamic as Sargent’s first nor as etiolated as others on disc. Elder proves a thoroughly adept guide, as one would expect given his increasing reputation as an Elgarian. The orchestra plays very well indeed, if not always with the sheerest refinement in the violins. But when Elder points detail he does so with distinction – note the stalking bass line under Use well the interval et seq.

A few thoughts then on this fine performance and recording. Elder takes a measured though not over-cautious tempo for the Prelude to Part I. We note the percussive trenchancy and the organ’s underpinning. The Gerontius is American lyric tenor Paul Groves, who reveals himself as a poetic and thoughtful musician, attentive to dynamics. In theory I rather like the way he refuses to underline some of Newman’s florid text – but the obverse is a rather sketchy communion with the musico-dramatic tension of Elgar’s music. He sounds unscared and undaunted early on and this emptying out is a little lacking in subtlety. Sanctus fortis sounds rather subdued, almost underpowered as well; and from time to time one feels him a little foursquare, as if things like the hideous wings episode have him a bit flummoxed. He certainly underplays the Oh Jesu passage – so few tenors, especially English ones, rip into this with the requisite agony. You need a theatrical animal such as Heddle Nash to do it.

I was rather disappointed with the opening to Part II. It’s over-recorded and Groves sings too loudly. He leans on the word refreshed nicely but lacks ‘amazement.’ He sings well with Alice Coote – more of her in a moment – but one feels him under increasing pressure dramatically as Part II gathers pace. I’m afraid Take me away didn’t register for me. It’s all rather gentlemanly, as if England has been bowled out for 51 and it’s time to pack it in for the day.

Coote is the strongest of the trio of singers. She has the measure of the work, her tonal resources are strong though the lower reaches of the voice are not yet as developed as such Angels as Janet Baker or Gladys Ripley. The result is that her Farewell has not the great consoling and cumulative force as theirs (Baker for Barbirolli, Ripley for Sargent I; the second recording by Sargent had Marjorie Thomas) but it does have a youthful purity that offers a slightly different gloss. It is a member of that family goes especially well with Coote and Groves offering nuanced portrayals of a difficult scene – there is grip and tension here   Bryn Terfel offers a good, resonant perhaps rather under characterised singing. I don’t find his voice especially frayed, as one or two commentators have, but I did find myself less awed by the voice than I was expecting. The lighter voiced bass-baritone Horace Stevens, in the live 1927 excerpts conducted by Elgar, negotiates the narrative complexities rather more perceptively I think. 

So in summary this is a fine performance, which lays bare and clear the orchestral writing, the choral strands and the architectural spine. It’s the best sounding Gerontius we have had for sure. But of the solo singers it’s really only Coote who truly impresses; Groves is fine as far as he goes but he flinches at the more extrovert moments; Terfel is also good but doesn’t illuminate the text. My inevitable recommendation – though many allergic to ‘old’ recordings will turn away - is Sargent 1 with the incomparable Nash – to think critics brayed at his operatic tendencies!; I admire Boult’s way with it though fewer people do these days; also of course the Barbirolli/Lewis/Baker.

Jonathan Woolf




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