The Dream of Gerontius
in German? What have we here? Actually, it’s by no means a far-fetched proposition. On the contrary; after the near-disastrous first performance in Birmingham the stature of Elgar’s masterpiece was first revealed through several much better – and much better prepared – performances in Germany which used the same translation of the text, by Julius Buths, as is used in this archive performance. The present performance was recorded by Austrian Radio and is here issued by the Elgar Society as volume 6 in their series Elgar’s Interpreters on Record
In his excellent note Michael Kennedy tells us that Julius Buths attended the Birmingham premiere of Gerontius
in 1900. The following year he visited Elgar in Malvern and told him of his plans to mount a performance in Dusseldorf in December 1901 before programming it again in May 1902 as part of Dusseldorf’s Lower Rhine Festival, of which he was music director. Elgar attended the performance and both he and the work were very warmly received. The same thing happened at the May 1902 performance after which Richard Strauss expressed fulsome appreciation during an after-dinner speech. Both performances used the Buths German translation and it’s interesting to read Mr Kennedy’s comment that in the course of making this translation Buths ‘bombarded the German-born A. E. Jaeger at Novello’s with emendations and suggestions.’ So the text that is used in this present performance has a strong pedigree. Furthermore, it’s a good translation, faithful and intelligent, and though a few note values have to be altered to accommodate the altered word underlay this isn’t an issue at all. To be honest, I didn’t find listening to the work in an unfamiliar language at all problematical though I was following in the vocal score.
The chief attraction for me in acquiring this set was to hear the celebrated tenor Julius Patzak (1898-1974) in the title role. However, to be truthful, he’s something of a disappointment. His commitment to the music is not in doubt and he sings with feeling. However, he was 62 at the time of making this recording and I’m afraid it shows. His tone is something of an acquired taste; it’s certainly nasal, one might call it pinched. To my ears some of his notes sound insufficiently supported and often there’s a definite tendency to sing notes on the flat side. However, there are still things to admire in his performance. He makes ‘Sanctus fortis’ a ringing declaration and though he sounds a bit strained at times in this quasi-operatic aria he sings with ardour and expression. ‘Novissima hora est’ is disappointing: Patzak doesn’t float the line. However, by compensation ‘Into Thy hands’ at the end of this passage is eloquently done. One thing in Patzak’s favour is that, possibly precisely because he was getting on in years, he convinces as an elderly man in extremis
during Part I. One other point in Patzak’s favour is that his clear, forward voice enables him to enunciate the text very clearly.
If Patzak disappoints the same cannot be said of Ira Malaniuk (1919-2009). She’s very convincing as The Angel. Her tone is rich and full and she sings the part with fine expression and understanding. Like Patzak there are one or two occasions when she takes the higher – or lower – alternatives in the vocal line, something which most other singers on disc don’t do, but this in no way detracts from her performance. I warmed to her performance right from the start. I recall enjoying her performances in two different live recordings of Strauss’s Arabella
) and she’s no less impressive here. I also liked Ludwig Welter (1917-1965), whose voice I don’t think I’ve previously heard. He’s an imposing Priest and also impresses as The Angel of the Agony. He has a fine, authoritative voice and he brings no little presence to both roles.
The choral singing is satisfactory but, frankly, no match for many of the other choirs on disc. The choir sings with commitment but the singing is very much of its time with rather excessive vibrato, which results in an insufficiently focussed sound. The orchestral playing is good though the recorded sound favours the vocal soloists. The sound itself is satisfactory: one must remember this was a radio production, never intended for commercial release. The sound is very obviously studio-bound and, as I say, the soloists are in the foreground. At one point (at about 1:30 in the ‘Sanctus fortis’) something very odd happens to Patzak’s voice and it sounds for about 15 seconds as if he’s singing from a bathroom next door to the studio. However, this is just a small, isolated blemish. Though not ideally clear and detailed the sound, which originates from Austrian Radio tapes, well transferred by Roger Beardsley, shouldn’t be any deterrent to appreciating and enjoying the performance.
I was pleasantly surprised by the conducting of Hans Swarowsky (1899-1975). I would never have associated him with English music and Michael Kennedy observes that even when he was conductor of what was then the Scottish National Orchestra, between 1957 and 1959, ‘his record of programming British music was negligible.’ However, he seems to me to have the full measure of this score and an understanding of it. That’s evident right from the start in a good account of the Prelude to Part I which inspires confidence that the conductor has empathy with the music. True, there are a few occasions when his tempi are too expansive but generally he follows Elgar’s markings accurately and throughout the performance I felt that the spirit
of the music was being conveyed both by him and by all the other performers. In the last analysis that’s what counts.
The set is well documented with a booklet that includes the text in both English and German and typically authoritative notes by Michael Kennedy.
I suppose that this is a specialist issue. However, it’s very well worth hearing, not least because it proves that Elgar’s music ‘travels’. I’d encourage all Elgar enthusiasts to listen to this set.