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Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Blest Pair of Sirens (1887)[11:54]
I was glad (1902, revised 1911) [7:02]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900)* [95:13]
Gerontius: Arthur Davies (tenor)*; Angel: Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano)*;
The Priest/Angel of the Agony: Gwynne Howell (bass)*
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Richard Hickox
rec. 14-16 February 1988, Watford Town Hall. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 241-46 [56:32 + 57:57]

For most devotees of this glorious score, the standard recommendations for recordings have remained the two classic versions by Boult and Barbirolli. There is also an excellent performance conducted by the latter in Rome in 1957, distinguished by the young Jon Vickers' extraordinary Gerontius. That recording is in indifferent mono sound and can hardly be a first choice. In fact, none of these recordings is flawless and none is in anything like the superb sound Hickox was given by Chandos here in 1988. It encompasses easily the range of dynamics between the tender intimacy of the exchanges between Gerontius and the Angel at the opening of Part 2, and the explosive ecstasy of the great choral outburst "Praise to the Holiest in the Height".
 
It has become fashionable to denigrate Elgar's music as parochial and Cardinal Newman's libretto as mere doggerel. Neither accusation is remotely true and it is not just the chauvinistic British public and a few, select British conductors who have increasingly taken this wonderfully dramatic oratorio to heart. The idea also circulates that Elgar "doesn't travel well", a notion I simply do not understand insofar as I am sure that this is worthy to stand alongside the choral masterpieces of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Brahms. Elgar himself avowed: "This is the best of me ... this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
 
Hickox marshals the big forces of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with great assurance; you may occasionally hear him grunting as he urges them on but we are spared Barbirolli's cetacean groans. The chorus is especially praiseworthy; their diction and dynamic shading are both superb. The demons are properly snide and sneering - no danger of their recalling Barbirolli's complaint to his chorus that they sounded like "bank clerks on a Sunday outing".
 
Hickox's soloists are a fine team; Felicity Palmer is a surprisingly direct and forceful Angel, just occasionally a little shrill on high notes but otherwise more impassioned and maternal than the more dignified and ethereal incarnations by such as Janet Baker and Helen Watts. Distinguished Welsh bass Gwynne Howell makes a noble Priest/Angel of the Agony in the sonorous Robert Lloyd mode and preferable to Kim Borg for Barbirolli. I can understand some objecting to the rather constricted, very "English" sound of lyric tenor Arthur Davies but he rises thrillingly to "Take me away" and I find him preferable in timbre to either Nicolai Gedda or Richard Lewis, despite the occasional irksome bleat in his vocal production. For me, Vickers' account remains hors concours - he was right to warn Barbirolli before the Rome concert that he was "not your typical English tenor" - but Davies' voice conforms more aptly to the vocal layout Gerontius' music demands. The closing pages as Gerontius surrenders himself to his fate are especially moving, Palmer caressing the text of "Softly and gently" with her dark, voluptuous mezzo-soprano.
 
The bonuses here are by no means negligible: we hear two pieces by Parry which illustrate how profoundly his idiom influenced Elgar. The choral cantata set to Milton's ode Blest Pair of Sirens is a lofty, hieratic work with a typically Elgarian ascending theme rising to a Wagnerian climax. I was glad has become part of the pageantry of the British establishment fabric, being composed for Edward VII's coronation and sung at all three since; it showcases the LSO Chorus in terrific form. These two pieces by Parry form ideal curtain-raisers to the main work.
 
This is a Gerontius sung and recorded on a really grand, operatic scale and remains the best version of the last twenty-five years. Issued as part of Chandos' The Hickox Legacy, it also stands as a fitting memorial to the late Richard Hickox, who died in 2008 aged only sixty.  

Ralph Moore 


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