Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
CD 1
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85* [27:27]
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 – Part I [36:12]
CD 2
The Dream of Gerontius – Part II [58:53]
*Jian Wang (cello); Mark Tucker (tenor) – Gerontius; Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo) – The Angel; David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone) – The Priest & The Angel of the Agony
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs; Tasmania Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. live, 19-20 November 2008, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House; *31 October 2008, venue not specified.
English text included
ABC CLASSICS 476 4297 [63:39 + 58:35]
Last year I reviewed some live recordings of Elgar orchestral works conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy (review). I found a good deal to admire but I came to the conclusion that overall the recordings were not as successful as his Rachmaninov set from Sydney (review) and that the performances didn’t challenge the best. However, I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing Ashkenazy in Gerontius. It’s worth noting that the performances included here were given over the same period of a few weeks as the other Elgar recordings.
Fresh from reviewing the recent concert performance in Birmingham conducted by Edward Gardner I sat down to appraise this set while I was still in ‘Gerontius mode’. Perhaps, with hindsight, that was unfortunate. On the other hand, this Ashkenazy recording is from live performances so it wasn’t an unfair juxtaposition. Sadly, any comparisons would be almost without exception to the disadvantage of the Ashkenazy performance.
Firstly, I’m afraid it has to be said that Mark Tucker is a serious disappointment as Gerontius. He is a singer who, hitherto, I would have associated with Baroque repertoire, though he does range more widely. I don’t know whether these performances caught him on a couple of evenings when he was in less than best voice but, during Part I especially, he seems under quite a degree of strain. As early as “Mary, pray for me” in his very first solo, the top G at the apex of the phrase is not cleanly hit and, indeed, top Fs and Gs seems to be a frequent problem throughout. Shortly thereafter the pitching on the phrase “by which I come to be” is inexact and there’s more questionable pitching at various points in the ‘Sanctus, fortis.’ Mr Tucker sounds increasingly taxed as that cruelly demanding aria unfolds; the phrasing is choppy at times, probably as he snatches breaths. Any singer can have off nights and that may well explain the issues I’ve just mentioned. However, the other disquieting feature of his singing is his pronunciation of the words, which often have an almost Italianate sound. It’s inappropriate and sounds terribly affected. In fairness, I should say that his performance in Part II is more pleasing – perhaps the fact that much of the role is lighter in style helps him here – and he makes a decent job of ‘Take me away’. However, overall this portrayal of Gerontius fails to pass muster in the face of competition on record from the likes of Paul Groves, Philip Langridge, John Mitchinson or Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Each of these singers, to say nothing of the incomparable Heddle Nash, brings far more to the part.
Ashkenazy has cast the Finnish mezzo, Lilli Paasikivi, as The Angel. She sings with a very full, rich tone and that in itself offers no little pleasure – though occasionally she does use a rather robust chest voice that doesn’t quite seem suited to the music. Unfortunately, what I miss in her performance is any real sense of identification with the text. The notes are all there but she doesn’t penetrate below the surface. Where, for example, is the expressiveness required at “You cannot now cherish a wish”? It’s the same at “A presage falls upon thee”, which sounds exactly like the phrases she’s sung immediately before. There’s little or no sign of comforting or consolation in her interpretation. She sings ‘The Angel’s Farewell’ nicely enough but one has heard singers like Sarah Connolly in the recent Birmingham performance and, on disc, Dame Janet Baker or Helen Watts invest this passage and the remainder of the role with so much more meaning. By comparison, Miss Paasikivi, despite the technical merits of her voice, sounds generalised.
The third soloist, David Wilson-Johnson, brings much more to his roles. He’s excellent as The Priest, singing with authority and fine tone. Later on he’s equally impressive as the Angel of the Agony.
Vladimir Ashkenazy’s conducting is something of a mixed bag. He is perfectly satisfactory for much of the score but there are a few misjudgements. By a long way, the worst of these occurs in Part I. The choir’s entry at ‘Be merciful, be gracious’ is marked in the vocal score as crotchet = 54. At the marked speed the music has a steady, purposeful gait and that’s how every conductor that I can recall hearing in the work has taken the passage. For some reason best known to himself, Ashkenazy takes the passage at a pace which is approximately four times the prescribed speed! At this pace the music becomes something akin to a brisk march, which is an utter nonsense. Not only is this completely at variance with the composer’s marking – and Elgar was scrupulous about the markings he put in his scores – but it’s at odds with the sentiment of the text. Frankly, it’s perverse. It also means that when the tenor launches into ‘Sanctus, fortis’ the music does not move forward at a new, much quicker tempo, as marked.
I’m not over-impressed with his handling of the end of Part I either. After the bass solo, when the choir enters (‘Go, in the name of Angels’) there’s an accelerando marked, followed by a piú mosso. In fact, there’s no discernible change in speed at all from Ashkenazy and this means that the music sounds heavier than it should and, if anything, it becomes heavier still just before the soloist starts to sing again so that the end of the ensemble is enervatingly slow. Something similar happens at the very end of the work, where Ashkenazy draws the music out far more slowly than is good for it. As a result the last 18 bars (from cue 136) become very stodgy, probably in a misguided attempt at a “suitably solemn” ending: the snag is that it’s not what Elgar wrote. There are other instances where I’m uncomfortable with Ashkenazy’s decisions about tempi and which make me feel that he’s decided to set his own stamp on the work rather than to put his trust in Elgar’s copious markings.
The choirs sing well. They deliver the Demons’ Chorus well; the fact that the presto section is a bit too steady isn’t their fault. The ladies make a splendid job as the Angelicals in the lead-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ and when that chorus is reached the choirs acquit themselves very well indeed. The orchestral playing is also good.
To complete the set Jian Wang offers a good account of the Cello Concerto. He’s an excellent and persuasive soloist – I really enjoyed his tone in the slow movement – and Ashkenazy accompanies him sympathetically.
When I surveyed most of the available recordings of The Dream of Gerontius in 2007 I noted several versions that have much stronger claims on the attention of collectors than this one. All that has happened since then is that the formidable performance by Sir Mark Elder has entered the catalogue (review), intensifying the competition still further. I’m afraid this Ashkenazy recording is very disappointing and simply can’t match the best on the market.
John Quinn

A good account of the Cello Concerto but a very disappointing Gerontius which simply can’t match the best on the market.