Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius -
Some personal observations on recordings of the work
by John Quinn
This article originally appeared on MusicWeb International in 2007 in connection with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Elgar. Since then some more recordings of Gerontius have been issued and it seems appropriate to update this survey in 2014 as we mark 80 years since the death of the composer in 1934. For ease of reference I have considered all but two of the recordings that I have newly encountered since 2007 at the end of this survey. One exception is the 1988 Richard Hickox recording, which I consider in its chronological order in the section devoted to recordings made between 1970 and 2006. The other exception is an historic disc of extracts, originally recorded in 1924, which I discuss at the start of the Historic Incomplete Recordings section.
I have made as few changes as possible to my original 2007 text because that included detailed comments on several versions that hadn’t, at least then, been reviewed on MusicWeb International whereas the more recently released recordings have generally received full reviews at the time of issue.
On 8 May 1889 Edward Elgar married Alice Roberts at Brompton Oratory. Among the wedding presents he received was a copy of the poem, The Dream of Gerontius by John, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), which was given to him by the parish priest of the Catholic church in Worcester where Elgar had been the organist. Newman’s poem had been published in 1865 and Elgar was familiar with it already but now he had his own copy of the text. However, it was not until he received an invitation from the prestigious Birmingham Festival to compose a major choral work for the 1900 festival that Elgar turned in earnest to making a setting of the poem
Newman’s poem is a long one, consisting of some 900 lines, including a substantial prologue. Elgar set most of the prologue as Part One of his composition but for Part Two he pruned the main body of the poem drastically, setting only about 300 of its 730 lines. His imagination fired by Newman’s verse, Elgar proceeded to compose what the writer Michael Steinberg has described as ‘a truly complete response to a poem of immense religious, intellectual, and literary complexity – complete both as an avowal of faith and as a work of human art.’
In 1899 Elgar had scored a conspicuous triumph with the orchestral ‘Enigma’ Variations. That work marked a quantum leap forward in terms of his compositional technique, his imagination and his mastery of the orchestra. In the same way Gerontius was a huge advance for him as a choral composer. He had already written several large-scale cantatas, but though two of these - King Olaf (1896) and Caractacus (1898) - are notable pieces Gerontius is a work of genius. In the solo writing of Gerontius we find Elgar displaying the same ability to depict characters in music that he had shown in ‘Enigma’. In addition, the writing for the chorus is quite superb and Elgar deploys the choir daringly. This is especially true of the build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, where the multi-layered choral writing is amazingly assured and, when done well, produces thrilling spatial effects. Later on in that same chorus, when the choir is divided into eight separate parts, the complex individual lines fit together superbly. The orchestration too represents a significant advance, even on ‘Enigma’, as the subtlety and power of the orchestral prelude alone demonstrates in abundance. As Michael Kennedy has observed, ‘Gerontius is the very pivot of his career: it sums up and glorifies all that he had been striving to say with lesser material and subjects, and at the same time looks forward, in its revolutionary ardour, to the symphonies and the later choral works.’
However, what truly sets Gerontius apart from all Elgar’s previous compositions is the sense of vision. Newman’s mystical poem clearly held Elgar in thrall. We may wonder how much this complex man, often beset by self-doubt even when at the height of his powers and fame, identified with Gerontius himself. Certainly Elgar depicts Gerontius’ trepidation, uncertainty and, finally, his sense of smallness beside the immense majesty of God with remarkable prescience. The portrayal of Gerontius’ Guardian Angel as a being of serenity, reassurance and protection, yet also of quiet authority, is also remarkably successful.
But the vision was nearly still-born for the première in Birmingham on 3 October 1900 was a near-disaster. The choir, faced with some of the most challenging music they can ever have encountered, was poorly prepared. Unfortunately, the chorus master, who understood Elgar’s music, died very suddenly just before rehearsals commenced. His seventy-year-old predecessor was called back out of retirement and was manifestly not up to the task, not least because he was out of sympathy both with the music and, as a Non-Conformist, with the text. The orchestra was equally under-rehearsed and the great German conductor, Hans Richter, who had triumphantly led the first performance of ‘Enigma’ in June 1899, had not mastered in advance this new and much more complex score. Somehow they got through to the end and despite the manifest inadequacies of the performance Gerontius was warmly received by both the audience and the critics, though the reception did little to cheer the distraught composer. Despite his failure to give Gerontius a fitting première, Hans Richter was clearly moved and impressed by the work. After the first performance he wrote in Elgar’s score in his idiosyncratic English: ‘Let drop the Chorus, let drop everybody – but let not drop the wings of your original Genius.’
Gerontius has a compelling logic and a narrative inevitability. After the orchestral Prelude, in which all the key musical themes that will be heard in the work are presented, we find the character of Gerontius on his deathbed. Friends and a priest are close at hand. Gerontius alternates between, on the one hand, frailty and trepidation (‘Jesu, Maria, I am near to death’) and, on the other, courage and faith (‘Sanctus fortis’). The chorus, representing his friends, punctuates his last moments with prayers until, after he has breathed his last, they and the Priest commit his soul to God (‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’)
When Part Two opens Elgar transports us to another world through the device of a short, luminous prelude of ethereal beauty. The Soul of Gerontius has passed into this spiritual place and here he encounters his Guardian Angel (‘My work is done’) The Angel’s last service is be to guide him to Judgement, first leading him safely past the dreadful spectacle of the Demons (‘Low-born clods of brute earth’). On the way the Angel explains to Gerontius that he will be granted but a glimpse of God before he is despatched to Purgatory (‘Yes, for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord’). The last stages of the journey to Judgement see Gerontius led through the serried ranks of Angelicals, who are praising God, until it is as if great gold doors have been flung open and the hymn of praise erupts (‘Praise to the Holiest’)
After the tumult of praise has subsided the Angel of the Agony stands close to the throne of God. He begs divine mercy for all those souls that come to judgement, culminating in a deeply moving phrase that is at once grand and supplicatory, (‘Hasten, Lord, their hour and bid them come to Thee’). Gerontius stands, humble, insignificant and afraid, before his God (‘I go before my judge’). In a masterstroke, Elgar depicts the brief moment when Gerontius sees God orchestrally, as the musical equivalent of a blinding flash of light. ‘Take me away’ cries Gerontius, in a mixture of fear and ecstasy. As he begins his time in Purgatory, the Angel calmly reassures him that his time there will pass and that once he is purged his Angel will bring him safely to everlasting life.
Gerontius in Performance
Elgar sets his interpreters many challenges in this work. The bass soloist has least to do but one of the key issues is that his two solos are very different, both in character and in tessitura. The Priest should be noble, dignified and consolatory without ever sounding sanctimonious. The role lies predominantly in the baritone range. The role of the Angel of the Agony ideally calls for a basso cantante with a commanding presence and the ability to inspire a degree of awe. Many times, both on record and in concert, I’ve felt that a soloist is better suited to one role or the other. The ideal solution is to have two singers but this is an expensive luxury. I’ve never seen it done in a professional performance and to date it’s only been done once on record.
Is the role of the Angel better sung by a contralto or a mezzo-soprano? In truth I think the answer is that either type of voice can fulfil the role but all depends on who the singer is. Attitude is all-important. If the singer is too objective then there’s a risk of coolness – that happens in at least one of the recordings under discussion here. But I’d rather have coolness than a fulsome approach – thankfully none of our singers falls into that trap. Arguably, nowadays there’s a further challenge for singers of the role: the shadow cast by Dame Janet Baker. There can be few roles in music on which one singer has so firmly stamped his or her mark and I’m sure I am not the only person who cannot hear certain phrases without hearing in my head the way Dame Janet inflected them. In fact, it’s just as much of a challenge to listeners such as me to put those thoughts aside when listening as it is for singers to put their own stamp on the role.
As for the tenor, Elgar all but asks the impossible. On the one hand Gerontius needs the power and stamina of a Heldentenor for passages such as ‘Sanctus fortis’ and ‘Take me away’. On the other hand much of the role, especially in Part Two, demands the subtlety of a Lieder singer. Furthermore, the singer must convincingly suggest a dying man at the start of the work yet be capable of meeting the rigours of ‘Sanctus, Fortis’. Then, in Part Two, he must express, without overdoing it, a sense of wonder, fear and awe as he portrays the Soul experiencing life after death. Identification with the text and the character are crucial and not every one of our soloists passes this test. But if one encounters a singer who can satisfy most, if not all, of Elgar’s demands then the rewards are great. Arguably, prior to Gerontius, it’s only in Elijah that we find as full a portrayal of a character in a piece of concert music with a religious theme
The chorus, too, must play their part. It’s often forgotten how little of the music in Gerontius actually involves the choir: only about one third, I’d say. The rest consists of solos and two orchestral preludes. However, the choral music is very challenging and it’s easy to see why the ill-prepared chorus came to grief at the première. The long lead-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, with its many layers and luminous textures, is a major test. So too, in a very different way, is the Demon’s Chorus, where, in Barbirolli’s memorable phrase, the chorus should avoid sounding ‘like bank clerks on a Sunday outing’.
But inevitably the greatest challenges are faced by the conductor, who must hold the whole thing together and inspire a performance of strength and feeling while eschewing any religiosity. He (or she) must also bring out the drama in the work. There are large forces to control and complex ensembles to direct. Yet much of the music, especially at the start of Part Two, is intimate and subtle. But Elgar helps his conductor. As in all his works, the score is littered with copious instructions as to tempo and dynamics. As a highly experienced Elgar conductor told me more than once, it’s all in the score and “all” the conductor has to do is to follow Elgar’s markings! Gerontius is difficult to define – and impossible to pigeonhole – but it is very far removed from “conventional” Victorian oratorio and often almost operatic in its intensity and sense, almost, of theatre. Elgar’s achievement is particularly remarkable since he must have been exposed to – and found it hard to break free from – the influence of many a second-rate oratorio during his formative years in Worcester. For the conductor, finding the balance between religious sentiment and the essential drama of the piece is not easy but it’s the key.
In 2007 I discussed the following CD versions - in chronological order of recording: Sir Malcolm Sargent (HMV, 1945); Sargent again (EMI, 1954); Sir John Barbirolli (EMI, 1964); Benjamin Britten (Decca, 1971); Sir Adrian Boult (EMI, 1975), Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, 1986); Vernon Handley (EMI Eminence, 1993); Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live, 2005); Sakari Oramo (CBSO, 2006). There was also one DVD version, preserving a live performance by Sir Andrew Davis (1997).
There are two more CD versions that have been around for a while but which I have never heard so I can’t consider them in the survey. One of these, recorded in Poole in 1996, is conducted by David Hill for Naxos (8.553885/6) with soloists William Kendall, Sarah Fryer and Matthew Best, the Waynflete Singers and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The other is the version conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. That was recorded, I believe, as long ago as 1976 and it’s on CRD (CRD33267). His soloists were Robert Tear, Alfreda Hodgson and Benjamin Luxon with the Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus. There’s also an ‘abridged’ version of the Gibson recording on Regis (RRC1322), though I’m not sure why anyone would want to hear this through-composed work in such a fashion.
I’m aware of one other recording that I’ve not managed to hear, namely a 1983 performance conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. This recording involved the USSR State Symphony Orchestra but all the other performers were British: Arthur Davies, Felicity Palmer, Norman Bailey and the London Symphony Chorus. The recording was issued by Melodiya and I think I’m right in saying it was a live performance, possibly even the première in what was then the Soviet Union. However, to the best of my knowledge it’s not currently available and I’m not sure it was even transferred to CD.
I did not consider in my original survey the 1988 Chandos recording conducted by Richard Hickox because I had not then heard it. Recently I have rectified that omission (review) and the recording is now discussed in more detail below.
Since 2007 new recordings have appeared conducted by Sir Mark Elder, Vladimir Ashkenazy and, most recently, by Edo de Waart. All of these have received detailed reviews on MusicWeb and are summarised at the end of this survey. I’m also including some comments on an interesting archive recording of a performance in German, which has been issued by the Elgar Society.
As far as I know all the recordings covered in this survey are currently available unless otherwise stated. It’s interesting to note in passing the extent to which EMI or various divisions of that company have led the way in recording this work. The survey that follows consists of some personal reflections on most of the recordings.
Historic incomplete recordings
Before dealing with the complete recordings mention should be made of some fascinating historical recordings of extracts. In 2007 I stated that the first-ever recordings of parts of Gerontius were made – by HMV, which was eventually to become part of EMI – in 1927 with Elgar himself conducting. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf, then kindly pointed out to me that some 65 minutes of music were recorded in October 1924 by Joseph Batten (1885-1955) who conducted the Royal Symphony Orchestra and a small, uncredited chorus, which may well have included the soloists. The solo roles were taken by the Welsh tenor, Dan Jones, Edith Furmedge (1890-1956) and David Brazell (1875-1959). I’m grateful to Jonathan, who subsequently made it possible for me to hear this recording. It has been transferred by Michael Dutton and issued by his label under the auspices of the Elgar Society as Volume 4 in the series, Elgar’s Interpreters on Record (CDLX 7044). Inevitably the sound of the acoustical recording is restricted and the excerpts leave frustrating gaps in the score but one can get a good idea of Batten’s way with the score. The complete Prelude to Part I is included and, apart from one passage where Batten pushes on far too quickly, it’s impressively shaped. Overall, Batten seems to have the measure of the score and he conducts these extended extracts well. Jones is an eloquent Gerontius, his voice fairly light but firm and ringing. His diction is of its time but very clear. On this evidence it seems Jones must have been an impressive exponent of the role. Edith Furmedge is less to my taste. Unlike Jones, she uses quite a bit of portamento and she doesn’t appear to characterise the music as well as does Jones. Brazell is a somewhat lugubrious bass: I’ve heard many better singers in the bass roles. Overall, this set of extracts is well worth hearing.
Incidentally, this CD also gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Gerontius of another Welsh tenor, Parry Jones (1891-1963) in an excerpt from Part II, lasting just under 6 minutes, from a 1938 live broadcast conducted by Sir Henry Wood. On this evidence, Parry Jones was an impressive and very expressive Gerontius. We also hear briefly, as the Angel, Muriel Brunskill (1899-1980).
Elgar’s own partial recordings are highly important, if frustratingly curtailed documents. Over forty minutes of music, including the complete Part One Prelude, were captured in a live performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 26 February 1927. Later that same year, on 6 September, HMV recorded the composer’s performance in Hereford Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival but only some 16 minutes of that performance have survived onto CD. So far as I know the only CD incarnation of those excerpts is contained in Volume One of EMI’s utterly indispensable Elgar Edition (EMI Classics CDS 7 54560 2). Though tantalisingly brief, these extracts are of great value and interest.
The Elgar Society has issued a three-disc set, Elgar’s Interpreters on Record, Vol. 5 (EECD003-5). These CDs contain off-air recordings made by the late Kenneth Leech and include just over thirty minutes of extracts from a 1936 radio broadcast conducted by Adrian Boult. Even more fascinating is no less than seventy-one minutes of excerpts from another broadcast, this time from 1935, conducted by Malcolm Sargent. In both cases the Gerontius is Heddle Nash (1894-1961). Opposite him are two highly contrasted Angels, Astra Desmond (1893-1973) for Sargent and Muriel Brunskill for Boult. In the 1935 broadcast we also hear Keith Falkner (1900-1994) in fine voice in both bass solos but the bass in the Boult performance, the Australian, Horace Stevens (1876-1950), offers a much less enjoyable listening experience. The sound quality is variable and surface noise is often intrusive, especially in the Sargent extracts. However, whilst the orchestra and chorus are rather dimly heard, meaning that it’s unfair to judge their contributions, the soloists are all clearly recorded.
Nash had given his first performance in Gerontius in 1931, at the prompting of Elgar himself, who conducted Nash’s first performance of the role. The Sargent performance was noted in Nash’s score as the fourth occasion on which he’d sung the work. He’s captured in very good voice. He sings with a real feeling for the words and his identification with words and music is complete. Where it’s called for his voice has an heroic ring, though what impresses me even more is the sense of inwardness that he conveys. We shall find all these qualities displayed again – and arguably to even greater effect - in his 1945 recording. There are occasions where Nash and Sargent perhaps linger over detail just a bit too much but the conviction of the performance carries the day. Nash brings a fine degree of intimacy and wonder to the dialogue with the Angel in Part Two. His Angel is Astra Desmond, who is described aptly by the late Alan Blyth in the booklet as ‘calm and serene.’ Keith Falkner is an elevated Priest and a fine Angel of the Agony.
The Boult extracts are in sound that is appreciably better. Nash delivers a superb ‘Sanctus fortis’. Muriel Brunskill is a very different type of Angel in comparison with Desmond. Hers is a rounder, fuller voice, a genuine contralto in fact. Horace Stevens was reputed to be a fine exponent of the bass roles but if what we hear in these extracts is representative then that reputation was grossly exaggerated. In fact he’s almost a caricature; his emphatic, portentous delivery of ‘Proficiscere’ gives me no pleasure whatsoever.
In all these sets of extracts the performing styles are very much of their time and not all modern listeners will react positively. Inevitably the sound calls for some tolerance, especially in the Sargent recording. But these are all precious documents; one set is conducted by the composer himself, and two are from performances within a couple of years of Elgar’s death, both conducted by leading interpreters of the work who indubitably imbibed their performing tradition from the composer himself. It should also be noted that Nash as well as Steuart Wilson (1889-1966) and Tudor Davies (1892-1958) who both sing for Elgar are all tenors of whose performances he is known to have approved.
All the recordings discussed above are ones which all lovers of Elgar’s music should try to hear; they are highly relevant to a wider audience than just specialist collectors.
Complete recordings prior to 1970
Dr Malcolm Sargent, 1945
The first complete recording of Gerontius was made in Huddersfield Town Hall between 8 and 12 April 1945 under the auspices of the British Council and was conducted by Dr Malcolm Sargent. Walter Legge was the producer. The distinguished cast included Heddle Nash in the title role, Gladys Ripley (1908-1955) as the Angel and, uniquely on record, a baritone, Denis Noble (1898-1966) as The Priest and a bass, Norman Walker (1907-1963) as the Angel of the Agony. Also taking part were The Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording has been issued on several labels in recent years, including Pearl (see review) and on Pristine Audio (see review). My experience of this recording is confined to the version issued in 1993 by Testament and my comments refer only to that transfer. However, Jonathan Woolf has heard all three transfers and it may help collectors to summarize his views of them. He is not enamoured of the Pristine Audio transfer for the reasons mentioned in his review. I’m grateful to him for providing the following comment on his view of the relative merits of the Testament and Pearl versions: ‘the Testament is smoother and has been more filtered; it gives an easier aural ride but the Pearl will appeal to those who can absorb shellac hiss and welcome the preserved higher frequencies. I'd go for the Pearl but I suspect the majority would prefer Testament.’
By the time Heddle Nash came to make this recording he had noted twenty-two performances of Gerontius in his score so he was truly a seasoned interpreter and we know that his interpretation of the role was much admired by Elgar. His performance here is, quite simply, wonderful. As in 1935, he and Sargent linger expressively on occasion – for example, in Nash’s very first solo. However, ‘Sanctus fortis’ burns with conviction and throughout Part One the ardour and urgency of Nash’s interpretation is readily matched by Sargent. The cry at ‘In Thine own agony’ sounds as if it has been wrenched from Nash’s very being. The hushed inwardness that he achieves through the use of head voice at ‘Novissima hora est’ makes for a very special moment indeed.
In Part Two, after Sargent has directed a compelling reading of the gently luminous Prelude, Nash sings his opening solo with a miraculously light airiness. Above all he conveys a sense of wonder in these pages that is deeply affecting and he sustains this mood throughout the dialogue with the Angel. Gladys Ripley sings that role quite beautifully. She has a lovely tone and sings sincerely and is most communicative. Hers is a distinguished performance throughout and her achievement is capped by a dignified and touching account of the Farewell.
Walter Legge had the discernment to engage different soloists for the two bass roles, a real piece of luxury casting, and his “extravagance” pays off. Denis Noble is well suited to the higher tessitura of the Priest’s role while Norman Walker is a commanding presence as the Angel of the Agony. The Huddersfield Choral Society makes a stirring contribution. One wonders what impact the war must have had on their membership; presumably some younger members would have been away on active service at this time. There’s no evidence of weakness, however, and all the big choruses come across very well. The Liverpool orchestra also plays extremely well. The sound has come up remarkably well in this Testament transfer (SBT2025).
Sir Malcolm Sargent, 1954
Sargent, now knighted (in 1947), was back in Huddersfield to re-record the work in November 1954, to mark his impending sixtieth birthday. Again he conducted the town’s Choral Society and the by-now Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. This time his soloists were Richard Lewis (1914-1990), Marjorie Thomas (1923-2008) and John Cameron (1918-2002). Lewis is a very involving Gerontius. He’s impressive at the start of ‘Sanctus fortis’ and indeed he sings the whole of that aria splendidly. Hear him, for instance, in the passage beginning at ‘And crueller still’, which is quite gripping. Showing, however, that he is responsive to the whole range of the part, he’s rapt at ‘Novissima hora est’. Throughout the whole set he displays marvellous clarity of tone and diction. His singing gives consistent pleasure and seems effortless.
Marjorie Thomas is a good Angel, if not, perhaps, the most distinctive one has heard. She makes all the expressive points but, happily, never overstates them. The dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel at the start of Part Two is very well sung by both soloists and it’s fluently conducted by Sargent. In the closing section of the work the beginning of ‘Take me away’ sounds as if the music is being ripped from Lewis and he gives a very good overall performance of the aria. As for Marjorie Thomas’s account of the Farewell it seems appropriate to borrow Alan Blyth’s phase and describe it as ‘calm and serene’.
EMI didn’t repeat the extravagance of 1945 and contented themselves with one soloist for the bass roles. The choice fell upon that fine singer John Cameron. He makes a noble, prayerful Priest. Perhaps he lacks the last ounce of vocal amplitude for the Angel of the Agony, a role that has a lower tessitura overall. However, he sings the part very well, not least those magnificent phrases at ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour.’
The singing of the Huddersfield Choral Society has a bit more bite and presence than that of their 1945 counterparts. Perhaps the average age of the choir was a little lower in peacetime? I suspect, however, that it’s more to do with the advances in recording technology over the intervening years. Suffice to say that, for the second time, the choral reputation of Huddersfield is well served although the outburst at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ is heard more thrillingly on several other recordings and later in the same chorus the passage beginning at ‘O loving wisdom of our God’ could and should sound more urgent. With another good showing from the Liverpool orchestra this is another very telling contribution by Sargent to the work’s discography. I feel that his interpretation is heard to better advantage in its 1945 incarnation though, of course, the remake is in much better sound..
Sir John Barbirolli, 1964
Richard Lewis was also involved in the third complete recording of the work but this time the venue was on the other side of the Pennines. The Free Trade Hall, Manchester was the place where, in December 1964, Sir John Barbirolli assembled the combined forces of the Hallé Choir and Orchestra, the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and the professional singers of the Ambrosian Singers, who, I think, formed the semi chorus. Joining Lewis on the soloists’ roster were the Finnish bass, Kim Borg (1919-2000) and a young mezzo-soprano named Janet Baker (review).
I’ve heard that Lewis was suffering from a cold at the time of these sessions. There are one or two occasions when one wonders if he was in fresher voice for Sargent but the differences, if differences they be, are minor. Once again he gives a most convincing portrayal. Indeed, in his very first solo he seems to suggest the frailty of the dying Gerontius even more convincingly than he did for Sargent. He’s right on top of ‘Sanctus fortis’, of which he gives a splendid, ringing account. He’s alive to every nuance of the role and attains a real spirituality at ‘Novissima hora est.’ When we encounter him in Part Two he conveys an inwardness and a sense of wonder to rival, though not surpass, Heddle Nash. In ‘Take me away’ his singing catches both the anguish and the hope that’s inherent in both the words and the music. In summary, Lewis is a first rate Gerontius, one of the finest exponents of the role on disc.
But for me one of the key factors behind the success of this recording is the performance of Dame Janet Baker. When she sings for the first time what was already an exceptionally eloquent performance of the work is taken to a new and higher level. Down the years much has been written about her assumption of this role and for many she is the Angel, though I’m sure Dame Janet herself would be the first to dismiss such talk. Nonetheless, the fact remains that for many people, myself included, it’s almost impossible to hear certain phrases without hearing in the mind the unique tone quality and inflection that she brought to these passages. These key phrases include ‘You cannot now cherish a wish’; ‘It is because then thou didst fear’; ‘A presage falls upon thee’; and ‘There was a mortal’. On these and many other parts of the work Dame Janet has left an enduring mark. With singers of the calibre and intelligence of Lewis and Baker on hand it’s no surprise that the dialogue between the Soul and the Angel is deeply satisfying in this recording. Both singers are audibly right inside their roles and, of course, they are guided and inspired by Barbirolli.
I mentioned Dame Janet’s participation as a key factor behind the success of this recording. The other is the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. Gerontius was a piece that he loved deeply and that comes through in every bar of this recording. True, there are one or two points when one wonders if he is loving the music just a little too much but he doesn’t wallow in the emotion of the work and it’s abundantly clear that he inspires his forces to give of their very best, individually and collectively, in the service of Elgar’s music. The Hallé Orchestra plays marvellously. The orchestral Prelude to Part One sings with Barbirolli as for no one else and in the Prelude to Part Two he coaxes playing of great refinement from the string section. But it’s on the choir that he works his strongest alchemy, inspiring them to sing with enormous commitment – there isn’t a bank clerk in sight during the Demon’s Chorus, which is sung – and played – with real bite. The long build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ is superbly handled and Barbirolli and the engineers realise with great skill the many layers of choral texture. When we reach the great paean of praise itself it’s a thrilling moment.
The performance is crowned by a deeply moving account by all concerned of the Angel’s Farewell. Here we realise that Dame Janet has saved her best singing of all for the end. She sounds consoling and encouraging but her singing is not just emotionally engaged it’s also technically superb. The exquisite top E on the word “hold” in the bar before cue 129 is, for me, almost worth the price of the discs alone.
Sadly, there is a flaw in this set and it’s not an inconsiderable one. The bass solos are allotted to the Finnish bass, Kim Borg. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Borg was Barbirolli’s own choice for the work. Even if that’s not the case Michael Kennedy remarks in his definitive biography of the conductor that JB had a penchant for bass voices such as Borg’s in Gerontius and that it mattered not if they weren’t English. Sadly, Borg is very badly miscast here. His English pronunciation is idiosyncratic, to put it kindly. One might forgive him that if it were not for the fact that, to my ears at least, the sound he makes is just ugly. I don’t detect any great feeling for or understanding of what he’s singing and ‘Proficiscere’ is only rescued by the superb choir. His solo in Part Two is no more appealing and one’s enthusiasm for this set must be qualified on account of his involvement. The recording is currently available in EMI’s British Composers series (5 735792).
Other Barbirolli performances on record
Before leaving Barbirolli it’s worth mentioning another recording that has surfaced from time to time on various unofficial labels. This version captures a live performance given in Rome in November 1957 when Barbirolli directed the chorus and orchestra of the Italian broadcasting organisation, RAI. Once again Barbirolli was given – or chose - a big-voiced European bass, in this case the Pole, Marian Nowkowski (1912-2000). His Angel was that fine English contralto, Constance Shacklock (1913-1999). Most interest lies, however, in the involvement of the remarkable Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers, then aged 31.
Vickers is a powerful, ringing Gerontius, as one might expect. But he also encompasses the more sensitive passages well. Constance Shacklock has a rich contralto voice and she sings with feeling and understanding. Marian Nowkowski is not much better suited to the bass roles than was Borg. However, his voice falls more pleasingly on the ear. The English pronunciation of the Italian choir is definitely an acquired taste. In truth, this performance adds nothing to our view of Barbirolli’s interpretation of Gerontius – though his trademark groans are much more in evidence than on the EMI recording. Lovers of the work will find the performances by Jon Vickers and Constance Shacklock of great interest. In 2008 this recording was issued on the Archipel label and I commented on it in more detail in my review.
A further Barbirolli performance, given in 1959 in New York with Richard Lewis as Gerontius, was issued in 2010 in a boxed set on the WHRA label (review).
Complete recordings: 1970-2006
Benjamin Britten, 1971
Having drawn something of an arbitrary line at the year 1970 I classify the remaining recordings as “non-historic”. The first of these recordings is a bit special for me as it was the first I ever owned and therefore the one through which I really got to know the work. It also earns something of a unique place in the pantheon because it’s conducted by another composer, Benjamin Britten, who brings some fascinating insights of his own to the work (review). The recording was made in The Maltings, Snape in 1971, after an Aldeburgh Festival performance.
Britten had an interesting team of soloists. Perhaps predictably the Gerontius was Peter Pears. As the Angel, Britten had the Australian mezzo, Yvonne Minton while John Shirley-Quirk sang the bass roles. Britten scored a particular coup by using the choir of King’s College, Cambridge for his semi-chorus. The different timbre of this choir set against the London Symphony Chorus is telling – in a wholly positive way. On no other recording, until Sir Mark Elder’s 2008 version, was the vital semi-chorus contribution so individually defined. The use of the King’s choir in this way suggests to me that Britten had thought about Gerontius very deeply.
Early on in the performance there’s another small detail that shows how Britten has thought about the score. In the Prelude to Part One there are two abrupt cut-offs just before cue 10. Britten, however, inserts a bass drum roll at these two points. It’s completely unauthorised – and very exciting, though the drama of the abrupt cut-off of the entire orchestra is sacrificed. I wouldn’t want to hear it done this way all the time but it’s good to hear it this way once in a while. I’d never heard this done before or since until the Colin Davis recording appeared.
Britten’s conducting is very fine. Much of the Prelude has sweep and urgency and he obtains really red-blooded playing from the LSO and singing to match from the LSO Chorus, which is not to say that the performance lacks refinement for that is certainly not the case. Once or twice Britten rather overplays his hand, most notably in the animato section of ‘Praise to the Holiest’, from cue 89. Frankly, between here and cue 95 Britten’s urgent pacing becomes rushed and as a result the music has become gabbled before cue 95 is reached. I also wish he’d held back a little immediately before the choir’s great outpouring at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ itself. It’s marked maestoso the first time and molto maestoso the second time but Britten rather ignores the markings and whilst the result has energy the grandeur is sacrificed. But such miscalculations are rare and what impresses above all in Britten’s reading is the sense of drama. In this, albeit their interpretations are very different, he comes closest to Barbirolli and it’s surely not without significance that of all the conductors under scrutiny here, apart from Sir Colin Davis and Sir Mark Elder, those two had the most extensive operatic experience.
Peter Pears’ assumption of the title role won’t be to all tastes. He was sixty-one when this recording was made and, arguably, the recording came a few years too late in his career. However, it was a while since I’d listened to this performance and coming back to it for this retrospect I was surprised at how good he actually is. He’s ardent in ‘Sanctus fortis’ although he does seem to need to take more breaths than many of his rivals. He floats ‘Novissima hora est’ plangently and, indeed, it’s in the quieter, more introspective sections of the role that he’s at his most effective. Given his eminence as a singer of art songs it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s in his element in the opening paragraphs of Part Two. Here he sings with no little eloquence and he combines very tellingly with the Angel of Yvonne Minton. I detected signs of strain and tiredness by the time we get to ‘Take me away’ and this isn’t the most convincing account of that aria on disc. One interesting small point is that Pears takes the lower alternative at ‘and go above’ in the bar after cue 123, something I’ve not heard done by any other singer on disc – it’s a choice which is rather at odds with the words.
Miss Minton is a very fine Angel. She may not tug at the heart strings in the way that Dame Janet does, but she’s at all times tasteful and sensitive. She does the Farewell very nicely indeed, though it’s noticeable that Britten is unsentimental here and makes the music flow more than most conductors, though not to its detriment. The third soloist also makes a very distinguished contribution. John Shirley-Quirk is in sovereign voice as the Priest. The Angel of the Agony is not entirely within his best compass but he sings the part well, and he’s magnificent at ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour.’
This Britten performance would not rank as a first choice but it’s a most interesting and vital interpretation and one that anyone interested in the work ought to hear. It’s available as part of an attractive Double Decca release coupled with Holst’s Hymn of Jesus (Boult) and Richard Hickox’s first recording of Delius’ Sea Drift (4481702)
Sir Adrian Boult, 1975
The next recording to be made was the one for which Elgar enthusiasts had been waiting with no little impatience for many years. At last, in 1975, Sir Adrian Boult was invited to record the work for EMI. He had a very noted exponent of the role of the Angel in Helen Watts and the bass soloist was Robert Lloyd. For the role of Gerontius the choice was a controversial one: the Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda. I recall that Gedda’s performance drew mixed notices at the time but, according to Michael Kennedy’s authoritative biography of Boult, the conductor himself was pleased with the choice, describing Gedda as “Alpha plus”. In a letter to the producer, Christopher Bishop, again quoted by Kennedy, Boult thanked Bishop for his ‘choice of and responsibility for the soloists, including the brilliant recruitment of an unlikely foreigner.’
In listening to Gedda, I don’t have the reservations about his English pronunciation that I do where Kim Borg is concerned. Sometimes the vowels sound a little unnaturally stressed but overall Gedda is good in this respect. He’s eloquent in his first solo, though I find him a touch mannered at ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul.’ He’s powerful, but also lyrical, in ‘Sanctus fortis’ but, on the other hand, the aria doesn’t quite seem to flow. When we get to ‘I can no more’ Gedda displays a wide range of expression and dynamics but in the passage beginning at ‘O Jesu, help!’ the music does seem to be pulled about too much. The employment of mezza voce at ‘Novissima hora est’ is excellent.
In the opening solo of Part Two Gedda produces some lovely sounds but I do wonder if his approach doesn’t sound just a little studied. The same comment applies to portions of his contribution to the dialogue with the Angel and though ‘Take me away’ begins thrillingly the body of the solo seems a bit on the slow side, but whether this is down to Gedda, to Boult or to the two of them in alliance is open to question. Though Boult’s direction of the whole score bespeaks wisdom and understanding there are a number of occasions - and not all of them involve Gedda - when I feel the pulse is a little too steady.
Helen Watts offers a warm and highly satisfying portrayal of the Angel. She’s completely inside the role and I’d describe her interpretation as “central” in terms of its performing tradition – I mean that as a compliment. She displays intelligence and a reassuring presence during the Dialogue in Part Two though I feel that the interactions between Nash and Ripley and between Lewis and Baker offer more. Among felicitous moments she’s gently radiant at ‘Thou shalt see thy Lord’ and she gives a dedicated account of the Farewell.
The third soloist is Robert Lloyd. He’s sonorous as the Priest, singing the solo with great nobility and expression. He’s also quite magnificent as the Angel of the Agony and, for me, he’s the pick of the singers that we’ve heard so far who essay both roles. Interestingly, in another letter to Christopher Bishop quoted by Michael Kennedy, Boult expressed regret, after the sessions, that two singers hadn’t been used. He commented, ‘the characters are so different, they should sound different too.’ Boult is quite right but Robert Lloyd comes closer than any other bass soloist to proving him wrong.
Boult benefits from an excellent chorus (the London Philharmonic Choir) and orchestra (New Philharmonia). The orchestral strings deliver a hushed, translucent rendition of the Prelude to Part Two and throughout the recording the orchestral playing in all departments offers warmth or bite, as called for, and great distinction. The choir are fiery Demons. In that chorus they sing with punch and clarity. Later, the build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ is splendidly controlled and realised by the singers and, of course, by Boult himself, while the great outburst of praise at the start of the chorus, majestically paced by Boult, is a tremendous moment. As the chorus unfolds, the second section, from cue 89, where the choir divides into two, is delivered with exemplary clarity and when the pace hots up, from cue 95 onwards, the pacing strikes me as near-ideal. All of this is captured in a vintage 1970s EMI recording of great warmth and clarity for which that fine team of Christopher Bishop (producer) and Christopher Parker (engineer) must take full credit. The original CD set suffered from one criminal presentational flaw with Part One broken between the two discs immediately before ‘Proficiscere’. I think I’ve read somewhere that this horrible blunder was eradicated on subsequent reissues: I do hope so.
I’d describe Boult’s performance as “dedicated”. It bears the stamp of all his accumulated experience and wisdom but for all that the drama is somewhat underplayed. The reading, while very satisfying on many levels, doesn’t always set the pulse racing. For that reason I don’t believe it can be counted as first choice but it’s an essential chapter in the work’s discography. Currently Boult’s recording is available in EMI’s British Composers series, coupled with his account of The Music Makers (5 665402).
Sir Simon Rattle, 1986
The Boult performance was issued in 1976 and ten years later EMI recorded yet another performance of the work. It’s worth noting that this was the sixth studio recording of the work and all but one had been made by EMI or various predecessors of that company: a proud record. This time it was led by Simon Rattle with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Chorus. Three soloists with distinguished pedigrees were lined up. Dame Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk each made their second recording of the work while the Gerontius, singing the role for the first time on record, was the erstwhile pupil of Heddle Nash, John Mitchinson. Here I must declare an interest for I have known John Mitchinson personally for some years, during which time I’ve enjoyed hearing him sing this role live on several occasions – including his last-ever performance of the role in November 2006, a performance in which I had the good fortune to take part. I think it’s interesting to note that Mitchinson probably essayed more of the heavy operatic tenor roles, including Wagner, than any other tenor under consideration here. During the 1980s and 1990s he was Rattle’s tenor of choice for such works as Das Lied von der Erde, Gurrelieder, and the Glagolitic Mass. Mitchinson is thus ideally equipped to be the most manly Gerontius on disc and he fulfils amply that expectation. However, he was also a noted and expert singer of art songs, with a particular expertise in the field of English song so, unsurprisingly, he was equally alive to the many sensitive nuances of the part, especially in Part Two.
His ‘Sanctus fortis’ is powerful and commanding but the more reflective pages of that solo are equally well realised. He fines down his voice admirably for ‘Novissima hora est’, floating the line admirably. All his experience as a character actor in opera comes to the fore in his singing during the opening paragraphs of Part Two and the cultivated nature of his singing brings a real distinction and many insights to his part in the Dialogue. Such passages as ‘But hark, a grand mysterious harmony’ are here shown to benefit from the resources of an heroic tenor and, predictably, he makes the start of ‘Take me away’ a thrilling yet anguished moment. At times on sustained notes the vibrato in his voice may distract some listeners though I don’t find it a problem and certainly the vibrato doesn’t affect the clarity of the notes in the way that, as we shall see, is a serious drawback in another recording.
Dame Janet had, by this time, over twenty years further experience as the Angel since recording it with Barbirolli and this shows in a reading of great maturity. However, there are trade-offs with the Barbirolli set. To my ears her voice had darkened over the intervening years and I also find a greater degree of freshness in her earlier traversal of the role. Nonetheless her portrayal of the Angel remains deeply satisfying and she has a unique way of warming such phrases as ‘You cannot now cherish a wish’ and ‘A presage falls upon thee.’ The Farewell is once again a deeply satisfying and consoling piece of singing. If, for me, her earlier rendition for Barbirolli remains preferable I still wouldn’t wish to be without this marvellous example of her singing what was a signature role in the full maturity of her career.
John Shirley-Quirk sings the bass roles with the eloquence and dignity that one came to expect from this fine singer.
Simon Rattle’s famed attention to detail is in evidence on this set and, in fact, in terms of sheer beauty and refinement of orchestral sound this is one of the finest recordings the work has received. The CBSO is on top form throughout, as is the CBSO Chorus, and in consequence all the Big Moments make their full impact. However, Rattle is equally successful in realising the more intimate sections of the score, such as a gossamer light account of the Part Two Prelude. There are some moments when perhaps I’d disagree gently with his choice of tempo but overall he seems to me to convey the shape and sweep of the work. It’s a little while since I’ve heard this performance right through. Returning to it now and hearing it pitted against the competition, as it were, I was agreeably surprised to be reminded how good it is overall. This recording is now on EMI Gemini (5 000612), coupled with Rattle’s recording of the ‘Enigma’ Variations.
Richard Hickox, 1988
I missed hearing this version until it was reissued in 2013 as part of the Chandos series, The Hickox Legacy (review). Hickox has the benefit of the LSO on top form and the LSO Chorus offers some of the best and most thrilling choral singing of this work on disc. The trademark Chandos sound is also a big plus for this set. Arthur Davies sings Gerontius. I don’t feel he evidences sufficient identification with the character he is portraying in Part I. There’s much to admire about his contribution in Part II. In the last analysis, however, I don’t think that his Gerontius, for all its merits, quite matches the leading exponents of the role, especially in terms of characterisation and feeling for the text. Felicity Palmer’s singing is impressive and expressive, not least her very good account of the Farewell. However, at certain key points, such as ‘There was a mortal’ I don’t feel she brings the same level of intensity to the music as, say, Sarah Connolly or Dame Janet Baker. Her portrayal of the Angel impressed me but didn’t move me. Much of Richard Hickox’s conducting is admirable and shows empathy with and understanding of the score. I have to admit, however, that I was disconcerted by his spacious treatment of several episodes. The performance has much to commend it. Though I’m glad to have heard it at last I don’t believe that it disturbs the leading recommendations
Vernon Handley, 1993
A long-awaited recording appeared in 1993 when Vernon Handley’s interpretation was set down. In a neat reversal of the Sargent recordings the Huddersfield Choral Society travelled to Liverpool to link up in Philharmonic Hall with the RLPO and its chorus. The soloists were Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Michael George. I commented in detail on that recording when it was reissued in 2003 (review). In summary, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson offers an excellent portrayal of Gerontius, albeit one that emphasises the lyrical aspects of the role – without short changing the dramatic moments. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is, perhaps, a little understated as the Angel and certainly doesn’t “do” as much with the words as do some of her rivals – or, indeed, Rolfe-Johnson. However, her portrayal is unaffected and sincere. Perhaps her subsequent appearance in the Andrew Davis DVD (see below) does her greater justice.
Vernon Handley draws marvellous playing from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and he’s very well served by the combined Liverpool and Huddersfield choirs – he probably has the largest chorus on disc. And the performance benefits hugely from Handley’s own attention to detail and his profound understanding of the work. I bought this recording when it first came out and I’ve always felt that it’s been underrated. As the performance is captured in very good sound, adding to the attractions of the set, this makes an excellent bargain recommendation.
Sir Andrew Davis, 1997
Sir Andrew Davis made a number of well-received recordings of music by Elgar, principally for Warner Classics, while he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Since then he has moved on to the Chicago Lyric Opera and Warner Classics have pulled out of new classical recordings so it seems unlikely that he’ll add Gerontius to his Elgar discography on CD, though his highly successful association with Chandos in the last few years perhaps gives hope for a new audio recording of the work. For those who rightly admire his work in Elgar the absence of a CD version makes all the more valuable a DVD of a live performance given in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in November 1997. The recording is welcome also in that it captures Philip Langridge’s Gerontius, which is not otherwise represented on disc. The other two soloists, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Alastair Miles have appeared in other recordings – for Handley and Sir Colin Davis respectively.
Again, this is a recording on which I commented in full when it was first released (review). Sir Andrew conducts a very convincing account of the score and Philip Langridge makes an excellent Gerontius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers also has much to offer, though I was a little less enthralled by the contributions of Alistair Miles. In 2008 the editors of The Penguin Guide rated this as ‘the finest recorded Gerontius ever.’ I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a considerable achievement – and a far safer all- round bet than the only other available live recordings by Sir Colin Davis and Vladimir Ashkenazy (see below). As far as I’m aware this is the only DVD release of the work to date so it’s good news that this is such a recommendable version.
Sir Colin Davis, 2005
2006 saw the release of a live recording by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO, made in the previous December (LSO Live. LSO0083). The soloists were David Rendall - a very late substitute for Ben Heppner - Anne Sofie von Otter and Alastair Miles. This reading need not detain us long, I’m afraid. It gives me no pleasure to say this as I admired Sir Colin greatly and his recordings of the three symphonies for the LSO Live label confirm him to be a fine Elgarian.
On this recording the orchestra and chorus both perform superbly and, one or two points excepted, I find Sir Colin’s interpretation convincing. What lets this performance down and rules it out of court is the contribution of the soloists. Alistair Miles is a hectoring Priest, projecting his voice too forcefully and, in so doing, the dignity and prayerfulness essential to the role elude him completely. On the DVD discussed above, which I saw before this CD came along, I thought his stentorian projection of this role might be explained by his positioning on the platform. However, I doubt that this applies to his performance in the Barbican. The role of the Angel of the Agony suits him better.
Anne Sofie von Otter sings well enough but I find her approach cool and objective and I really do wonder how well she understands the role of the Angel. However, the set’s real Achilles heel lies in the singing of David Rendall. Right from the start he sings with such a very wide and pronounced vibrato that, to be truthful, I often find it difficult to be sure of the precise pitch of the notes he is singing. This applies at all levels of volume and it makes listening to him a real trial. Perhaps the microphone was too closely placed, but if so all that does is to exaggerate an unacceptable flaw in his singing. One must make allowance for the fact that he was a very late substitute – but that applies only to the first of the two concerts from which this recording is taken. I didn’t see Jim Pritchard’s concert review before I acquired this set. However, I note that he felt at the time that this performance of Gerontius should not be preserved on disc and I can only agree. In fairness I should add that Jim clearly enjoyed Miss von Otter’s performance more than I did.
Since I wrote these comments I’ve heard a broadcast of a very fine performance that Sir Colin conducted in Dresden in March 2010, on Palm Sunday. On that occasion he had the benefit of two splendid principal soloists: Paul Groves and Sarah Connolly. Recordings of a number of Sir Colin’s Dresden concerts have been issued on the Profil label and this Gerontius would be a prime candidate for issue by that label, not least because Sarah Connolly has not yet had the chance to record the work. Unfortunately, this performance will probably never see the light of day because it’s marred by some irresponsible idiot in the audience who, unbelievably, briefly breaks into loud applause as Grove finishes the ‘Sanctus fortis’. That’s a great shame as I think this performance better serves Sir Colin’s reputation as an interpreter of Gerontius. Perhaps there’s another live performance in some broadcaster’s archive?
Sakari Oramo, 2006
The most recent contender that I had to consider first time round was the Birmingham recording, released to coincide with the Elgar 150th birthday weekend celebrations in 2007. Sakari Oramo led his CBSO forces in a studio recording taped in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in August and September 2006 (review). Oramo’s soloists were Justin Lavender, Jane Irwin and Peter Rose. On listening yet again for this survey I came to the conclusion that I’m reluctant to recommend this set, though that’s a pity given the excellence of much of the enterprise. Both the playing and choral singing are superb and the recorded sound, which positively blossoms in the spacious acoustic of Symphony Hall, is very fine indeed. I like much of Sakari Oramo’s conducting too, though I do part company with him over the choice of tempi in ‘Praise to the Holiest’. Among the soloists Peter Rose is satisfactory and my admiration for Jane Irwin’s assumption of the Angel has, if anything, increased on listening to the recording again. But I’m afraid the Gerontius of Justin Lavender is a major stumbling block for me. Even more than when I first heard the set I miss any real sense that he truly understands the spirituality behind the role. His lack of sensitivity is highlighted by his inattentiveness to soft dynamic markings. I’m afraid he simply won’t do. In the interests of balance, however, I ought to say that since I originally reviewed the set a very experienced critic, writing in another publication, has expressed the view that Lavender ‘offers nobility, variety, intelligence and understanding of his difficult part: he is always ‘inside’ it.’
Recordings issued since 2007
Hans Swarowsky, 1960
Though this is an archive performance it wasn’t released until 2008 so it will be more convenient to consider it here. Issued by the Elgar Society, it derives from an Austrian Radio recording. The performance is sung in the German translation by Julius Buths. This translation was made by Buths immediately after the Birmingham première, which he attended, in order for him to lead performances in Dusseldorf in 1901 and 1902. Elgar attended both performances and both he and the piece were warmly received. The translation is faithful and works very well.
The chief interest of this recording may lie in the presence of Julius Patzak singing the title role. Sadly, 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 nasal - indeed, one might call it pinched. Furthermore, some of his notes sound insufficiently supported and often there’s a definite tendency to sing notes on the flat side. Though he does convinces as an elderly man in extremis during Part I and despite his clear enunciation of the words throughout the performance I suspect he recorded the role ten years too late.
However, Ira Malaniuk is very convincing as the Angel. Her tone is rich and full and she sings the part with fine expression and understanding. I warmed to her performance right from the start. I also liked Ludwig Welter, who is 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 so orchestral detail is often obscured.
Hans Swarowsky, who I would not have associated with English music, conducts well. He seems 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 the other performers. In the last analysis that’s what counts.
The sound itself, which originates from Austrian Radio tapes, is satisfactory: one must remember this was a radio production, never intended for commercial release. 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 (review).
Sir Mark Elder 2008
I thought that Sir Mark Elder’s 2005 reading at the Henry Wood Proms was something special (Seen and Heard review) and his subsequent studio recording did not disappoint. The American tenor, Paul Groves, is a most impressive Gerontius. Perhaps he was just a little more spontaneous in the 2005 live performance but, on the other hand, studio conditions and, no doubt, further experience in the role, enabled him to be more nuanced in 2008. He’s equally successful in both Parts I and II and his is the best Gerontius of recent times and worthy to be ranked with the finest exponents on disc. Alice Coote is a fine Angel. She sings with feeling and commitment as well as musicality. Bryn Terfel is magisterial as the Priest and predictably imposing as the Angel of the Agony. The Hallé Youth Choir and Hallé Choir sing splendidly while the orchestral contribution from the Hallé is superb. The conducting of Sir Mark Elder is masterly in every way. His command of detail is extraordinary, as you can tell if you follow with a score, but equally memorable is his command of the Big Picture. His Elgar recordings prior to this one and since have shown he is arguably the leading Elgar conductor of our day and this Gerontius is one of the very best things he’s done. As I said in my original review this is a remarkable achievement
Vladimir Ashkenazy, 2008
This is a recording taken from live performances given in Sydney in 2008 though it was not issued until 2012. Unfortunately, as I said in my review this is not a recommendable version. Mark Tucker, who sings Gerontius, sounds under strain in Part I though he fares somewhat better in Part II. The Finnish mezzo, Lilli Paasikivi, is the Angel. She sings with a very full, rich tone and that in itself offers no little pleasure. Unfortunately, however, what I miss in her performance is any real sense of identification with the text. The notes are all there but she doesn’t seem to penetrate below the surface. David Wilson-Johnson, the third soloist, is much more satisfactory and the choir and orchestra both do well. I’m afraid that overall I’m unimpressed with Ashkenazy’s conducting of the score, not least with several tempo selections which are significantly out of step with Elgar’s very precise markings. He really offers little in the way of persuasive insights into the score and, in summary, this recording is very disappointing and simply can’t match the best on the market.
Edo de Waart, 2013
The most recent recording comes from a slightly unexpected source: Belgium. Edo de Waart conducts the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and the Collegium Vocale Ghent on a two-disc Pentatone release (review). This set has a lot going for it. De Waart conducts the score well and he obtains an excellent response from the orchestra. Those comments also apply to the uncommonly generous coupling: a good performance of the First Symphony. The choir, which is more usually heard in earlier music than this, offers arguably the finest choral singing in this work on disc to date. I’m sure the chorus is numerically smaller than we are accustomed to hearing but these are all professional singers – I suspect it’s the first recording to feature a wholly professional choir – and the focus and precision of their singing brings great rewards. The only slight caveat is that the semi chorus isn’t as differentiated – or distanced – as one would like. The recorded sound is very fine indeed. Peter Auty is in many ways an impressive Gerontius though in Part I he doesn’t suggest much of the frailty of a dying man. However, you’ll go a long way to find a Gerontius whose voice is as clear and open-throated and his diction is crystal clear throughout.. Overall, he’s a good Gerontius though I’ve heard several – including Paul Groves, 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 American baritone, John Hancock doesn’t present a serious challenge to the best singers of the bass/baritone roles: he’s better as the Angel of the Agony than as the Priest. 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 reservations soon arise. 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 and, to make matters worse, quite often she breaks the line. She offers a good account of the Farewell but elsewhere I often listened in vain for evidence of a consoling or encouraging sentiment in her singing.
The main flaw – and a very serious one – is that in order to accommodate the symphony as well as Gerontius it’s necessary to change discs part way through Part II. The break comes immediately after ‘Praise to the Holiest’. 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.
Does the ideal recording of The Dream of Gerontius exist? Is such a thing possible? The answer to both those questions must surely be in the negative for it’s highly unlikely that a performance of any work of art can achieve perfection. And in any event one person’s “ideal performance” will not strike another listener in the same way. But that’s not to diminish the achievements, both individual and collective, that are enshrined in several of the recordings discussed above. Indeed, among them all there are only a couple that I’d decline to recommend.
All the rest have much to commend them. Britten’s version has many penetrating insights, though Pears as Gerontius will not be to everyone’s taste. Boult’s performance exudes authority but, as with the Britten version, he has a controversial tenor in the title role. Vernon Handley’s version is as authoritative as Boult’s and I’m much more attracted to both his Gerontius and his Angel than some other commentators have been. In 2007 I expressed the view that of the modern versions the Rattle set was the best all-round choice. I now think that, for all its merits, Rattle’s version must now yield to Elder.
Among the earlier recordings choice lies between Sargent and Barbirolli. In the case of Sargent it has to be the 1945 version, despite the merits of his later traversal. In fact, I choose the Sargent version not so much for the conducting as for the performers, and Heddle Nash especially. No Elgar enthusiast’s collection should be without this performance: Nash is simply hors concours. However, for vision and inspirational conducting I keep coming back to ‘Glorious John’. It’s true that Kim Borg is a grievous disappointment – a terrible piece of miscasting. But Lewis is still a very considerable Gerontius, even when slightly indisposed, and in the young Janet Baker Barbirolli has an incomparable Angel. When you add to that a choir and orchestra that perform as if their very lives depended on it then you have a Gerontius that is still unsurpassed. I confess that it was this version that moved me the most during my comparative listening and, surely, emotion as well as objective assessment is a major part of the evaluation of any musical performance.
I would not wish to confine myself to a single choice for this work. That’s not a cop-out but, rather, a recognition that various interpreters bring different things to this score. So my joint recommendation is that the Elder and Barbirolli recordings belong in any serious Elgar collection.
On the manuscript full score of Gerontius Elgar inscribed some lines from a poem by John Ruskin. The quotation begins ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another.’ He also wrote to a friend that he had ‘written my own heart’s blood into the score.’ Hearing music of such blazing conviction and originality, particularly in Barbirolli’s warm hearted, dramatic and totally committed performance, who could doubt him?