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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 [91:56]
Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55 [50:27]
Peter Auty (tenor); Michelle Breedt (mezzo); John Hancock (baritone)
Collegium Vocale Ghent
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Edo de Waart
rec. February 2013, Concert Hall deSingel, Antwerp. DSD
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186472 SACD [71:11 + 71:12]

The days are long gone when it was asserted that only British musicians could do proper justice to British music. Nonetheless, it's interesting - and refreshing - to encounter recordings of two of Elgar's great masterpieces by predominantly Belgian forces under a Dutch conductor. It's particularly fascinating to find the chorus parts sung by Collegium Vocale Ghent, an ensemble which I've previously associated with much earlier music.
Let's start, therefore, by considering the choral contribution to this recording of The Dream of Gerontius. I don't know how many singers comprised the choir - possibly 70 or 80? - but I'm sure the choir is numerically much smaller than I have encountered on previous recordings of Gerontius. However, the key here is not the size of the choir but the fact that it is a group of professional singers. Recently I heard a fully professional choir of about 80 singers do full justice to Verdi's Requiem in concert (review) and here's another example of what professional forces can achieve. I suspect this may be the first time Gerontius has been recorded by a wholly professional choir and the contribution of Collegium Vocale Ghent is one of the strongest features of this present performance. Throughout the performance the choir is tight in ensemble and produces finely focussed singing. As a result the Demons' Chorus - never one of my favourite passages - is taut and exciting, every separate line crystal clear. The build-up to 'Praise to the Holiest' is equally well achieved while the outburst at the start of 'Praise to the Holiest' itself is a truly thrilling moment, the singing grand and sonorous and superbly recorded by the Pentatone engineers. After that spectacular start the main body of that chorus is very well done, aided by a fleet tempo set by de Waart; what can be a dull or stodgy passage in a lesser performance here emerges as light and agile with dynamic contrasts keenly observed. All in all, this performance offers the best choral singing I can recall hearing in this work; the only disappointment is that the semi-chorus doesn't sound as ethereal as, ideally, it should.
The orchestra is similarly fine. All sections play impressively, starting with a very well-played Prelude. The only time I would fault the orchestra is during the Prelude to Part II where the strings sound much louder than the pp or ppp that's marked in the score. On the other hand, the orchestral preparation for 'Take me away' is superb - except that de Waart ignores the stringendo marking in the last couple of bars - and the great crash that depicts the blinding vision of God that Gerontius is momentarily granted is as shattering as I've ever heard it on disc.
In many ways Peter Auty is an impressive Gerontius. Certainly, you'll go a long way to find one whose voice is as clear and open-throated and his diction is crystal clear throughout. In Part I especially he offers a somewhat operatic interpretation, which isn't inappropriate, and he's ringing and forthright for much of 'Sanctus fortis'. I'm not sure that he suggests much of the frailty of a dying man, though. Also the slightly Italianate way in which he sings means that one has the impression that not all the words are attacked cleanly. He's lighter of voice in the more intimate stretches at the start of Part II and I liked much of his contribution to the dialogue with The Angel. Once or twice I think he misses a trick, though. For example, 'I see not those false spirits' after the Demons' Chorus is sung in far too straightforward a fashion and I'd like more inwardness and apprehension at 'I go before my judge'. However, he has the necessary vocal resources for 'Take me away' and makes a very good job of this final solo. Overall, he's a good Gerontius though I've heard several - including Paul Grove, Philip Langridge, John Mitchinson and the incomparable Heddle Nash - who are more distinctive and who seem to me to penetrate to the heart of the matter more convincingly.
The South African mezzo, Michelle Breedt, sings The Angel. Hers is a very full-toned voice, almost veering towards contralto in timbre, and her tone is somewhat covered at times. Initially I thought I was going to like her performance but as Part II unfolded I began to have reservations. For one thing, her heavily accented English is sometimes intrusive. More seriously, she frequently adopts an operatic style that I find quite at odds with the spirit of the music. To make matters worse, quite often she breaks the line, which is inexplicable since I can't believe a singer of her operatic pedigree is running short of breath. She does offer a good account of the Farewell but elsewhere I often listened in vain for evidence of a consoling or encouraging sentiment in her singing. I could list many singers who have given a more rounded and heartfelt interpretation of this role and I'm left wondering if Miss Breedt really understands the role or the work.
The bass, John Hancock, is American, I believe. I can't say I really care for his singing as The Priest. He sings with so wide a vibrato that not all the notes seem completely secure and, for an Anglophone singer some of his pronunciation - especially 'In the neem' - seems odd. He's much better as The Angel of the Agony, possibly because he's not pushing his voice as much. Overall he doesn't present a serious challenge to the best singers in these roles, including Robert Lloyd and the late, lamented John Shirley-Quirk.
I'd not previously associated Edo de Waart with Elgar's music but he conducts the score well. Some may find unsettling the fairly flowing tempi that he adopts for much of the dialogue at the start of Part II but once I'd listened for a while I found this approach refreshing. He handles the big moments, such as 'Praise to the Holiest' and the Angelicals' build-up to it very well and he makes the Demons' Chorus fiery and exciting. He clearly inspires fine singing and playing from his choir and orchestra. Once or twice I felt a little let down - where's the urgency at 'Rescue him' in Part I, for instance? Overall, however, I thought he conducted the work successfully and with understanding.
I also admired his performance of the very generous 'filler': the First Symphony. Neither of these works can be exactly staple fare for a Belgian orchestra but the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, having distinguished themselves in Gerontius, play the symphony extremely well. I like the way de Waart treats the motto theme at the start: it's nobly voiced, especially when the full orchestra takes up the tune, yet he keeps the tempo moving forward very persuasively and avoids any risk of pomposity. The main allegro surges most convincingly while the more delicate episodes are beautifully done.
The Allegro molto movement is bracing while its 'riverside' passages have a becoming lightness. It's one of music's miracles that Elgar transforms the scurrying string figurations of the second movement into such a glorious Adagio. De Waart handles the seamless transition between the two movements very well and the Adagio itself, well described in the notes as 'something like a golden sunset', is warmly played and phrased. De Waart ensures that the lyrical side of the music is given its full value but he also maintains a pleasing momentum throughout a very satisfying account of this movement. The finale is often red-blooded and energetic though there were times when I felt the rhythms were a touch four square. When Elgar brings the motto theme back for its closing peroration de Waart makes the moment into a very satisfying and not overblown QED. This is a most enjoyable performance of the symphony and while it may not challenge the leading recommendations it would certainly have been competitive had Pentatone chosen to release it singly.
The presentation by Pentatone calls for quite a bit of comment. On the plus side the sound quality of these SACDs is very fine indeed. In fact I don't think I can recall hearing Gerontius in better sound. The notes are interesting and enthusiastic, even if one doesn't agree with every word. However, there are two major presentational shortcomings with this set. The first is the complete absence of texts and translations. Since the notes are in English, French and German I presume the release is aimed at an international market. Frankly, the lack of texts to accompany a premium release such as this is unpardonable. It's a very generous package to offer these two major scores together. Alas: this generosity comes at a high price. In order to accommodate the symphony, which is too long to fit on disc one before Part I of Gerontius, it's necessary to change discs part way through Part II. The break comes immediately after 'Praise to the Holiest'. I suppose it could be argued that there's a general pause at that point, marked lunga, but even so having to change discs at this point is a catastrophic distraction, unprecedented in my experience, and it's a very serious drawback to this set. It seems almost as if we've regressed to the 'bad old days' of LP side-breaks.
That's a great pity because, even though it's not a top version, there's much that's worth hearing in this Gerontius, not least the choral and orchestral contributions, while there's much to admire in Peter Auty's performance and Edo de Waart's conducting. As the recording of the symphony is a good one I'd seriously urge Pentatone to take the unusual step of reissuing each recording separately as soon as may be feasible and, in the process, eliminating the disfiguring break in Part II of Gerontius. In any event, I should be interested to hear more Elgar from Edo de Waart.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Elgar Symphony 1