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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1897-99) [21:46]
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900) [93:07]
The Dream of Gerontius – Prelude, concert version [9:23]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Stuart Skelton (tenor); David Soar (bass)
*BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 3-5 April 2014, Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
Texts included
CHANDOS CHSA5140(2) SACD [58:33 + 66:14]

First things first: Sarah Connolly’s Sea Pictures is very good. Like all British mezzos in this repertoire, she is well aware of her lineage to Janet Baker, but she is not dominated by it, and she finds a sensuous side to her voice that you don’t always hear from her, which makes these songs very successful. There is a sense of triumph in The Swimmer, a lighter edge to Where Corals Lie and, most successfully, a superb feeling of radiance in Sabbath Morning. The contribution of the orchestra is excellent, too, full of delicately painted swell in the Sea Slumber-Song and supportive of Connolly in every way.

However, it’s clearly only a well-chosen filler to the main event and, happily, the Andrew Davis Gerontius is a reading to cherish. He shapes Elgar’s masterwork with wonderful sensitivity, revelling in the work’s ethereal nods to the hereafter, but grounding the first part in the pain and uncertainty of the death-bed in a way that I found very convincing. Aspects of the orchestral introduction carry tremendous power and really made me sit up and take notice, especially the climax just after the 4-minute mark. Incidentally, Davis also includes the concert version of the Prelude as an appendix at the end of disc two. Even before this, however, Davis had won me over with his persuasive lilt to the sometimes faltering rhythms, and the violas are especially brilliant — wistful, tentative, longing — in the bridge passage that leads into Gerontius' opening monologue. In fact, it’s the string sound that strikes me as the best thing about the playing of the BBCSO, too. They carry the weight of the work’s expressiveness at the beginning and end of each part, and are especially effective at conveying the light airiness of the opening of Part Two. Davis has clearly worked with them very closely to establish a uniquely responsive approach to Elgar’s very particular Gerontius sound-world, and they match him every step with playing of sensitivity and, where needed, power. I loved the way Davis builds towards the climaxes, in the second part, of the Demons’ chorus and, later, Praise to the Holiest, which is so wonderful because its approach has been so carefully heralded. Perhaps the climactic burst before the throne of God doesn’t carry quite enough power, but it’s almost impossible to do so outside of the live-ness of the concert hall, in my experience. Note, by the way, the daringly long pause that comes before the great smash. The final lullaby is very moving, the whole orchestra seeming to rock the soul into its Purgatorial resting place while Davis controls the ebb and swell of the climaxes in a way that means the music avoids ever sounding samey or formulaic. His previous Elgar recordings on Chandos have all been lauded, and this one deserves to take its place alongside them.

He is matched by brilliant work from the Chorus, who paint their scenes with just as much care as do the orchestra. That’s true for their big moments in the second part: the chorus of the Demons is incisive, cutting and, at times, blackly comic, while their chorus of angels carries marvellous cumulative power in Praise to the Holiest, while their gentle interpolations in the background take on architectural importance to the score. It’s that gentleness that is, really the best thing about their contribution to the first part, too: they steal in beautifully for their first, half-heard prayer on Kyrie eleison. The effect is spine-tingling, but it is to their credit that they are always precise and clear with no hint of fog. Chandos’ superb recording also allows them to come across brilliantly, and not a word is lost.

The soloists are super, too. Stuart Skelton is a fantastic Gerontius. He tones down the Heldentenor elements of the voice to stress role's vulnerability but he is never merely pathetic: even at the moment of his death, this Gerontius is a man to be reckoned with. His strength comes through in Rouse thee, my fainting soul, but it is still never overbearing. His delirium at I can no more is especially powerful, most compelling, and forms a fitting postlude to the great declaration of faith that precedes it. In the Second Part his relationship with the Angel is beautifully, tenderly drawn, and the climax on Take me away is conveyed very powerfully, full of acceptance of the suffering ahead. Throughout, Skelton treads assuredly the very careful dividing line between pathos and grandeur, making him an all but ideal interpreter of the role.

Sarah Connolly’s Angel is marvellous, too, but the predominant note of her interpretation is of nobility. Beautiful and sympathetic as she is, I found her angel a little austere, not as approachable or companionable as Alice Coote (more of whom below) nor as affectionate as the untouchable Janet Baker in this role. Still, she is marvellous, using the low ranges of her voice to spellbinding effect in her introduction and finale, while using the upper reaches majestically in her praise of God. David Soar knocked me for six as the Angel of the Agony, full of power and stunning conviction that I just wasn't expecting. Listening to that section again and again made it all the more compelling, as did his authoritative priest, his evangelical ardour underpinned by marvellous brass playing from the orchestra.

I enjoyed this recording enormously, and it’s very gratifying that so much of it is so right because, until very recently, pretty much all the recordings of Gerontius had one serious problem with them. Barbirolli’s conducting is magnificent and has the untouchable Angel of Janet Baker, but is held back by rather hissy recording — at least in the transfers I’ve heard — and the difficult pronunciation of Kim Borg. Britten brings the work alive as only a composer can, but not everyone will enjoy Peter Pear’s Gerontius, and the same is true of Boult’s tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Simon Rattle also features Baker but, singing the role more than twenty years after she did so for Barbirolli, she is past her best. The first truly satisfactory Gerontius, to my ears, came from Mark Elder, whose 2008 Hallé recording (on the Hallé’s own label) works, for me, on every level and, in fact, I think it’s still the best, better even than this one from Davis. Elder’s control of the score is sensational, unfolding the drama in a way that is completely compelling. The singing is outstanding, too. Paul Groves is probably the only tenor I’ve heard in the role who could stand up to Skelton, while Alice Coote’s angel is tremendously sympathetic and affectionate in a way that Connolly doesn’t quite manage. It is luxury casting to have Bryn Terfel as the baritone soloist, and his keen sense of drama, as well as the vocal colour, higher than many in the role, is worth revelling in.

Maybe it’s helped that I heard a similar team do the work as the closing concert of the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. That concert seared itself onto my musical memory in a way that still gives me goose-bumps but, if Davis doesn’t quite match it, then he certainly comes close. The attractive packaging, brilliant sound and inclusion of the Sea Pictures may well swing it for some.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

John Quinn's personal observations on the Gerontius recordings