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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 SACD [58:33 + 66:14]

I warmly welcome this release from Chandos on at least two counts. When I undertook my survey of available recordings of The Dream of Gerontius in 2007 I rated the 1997 DVD version by Sir Andrew Davis very highly (see also my separate review). I expressed the view, however, that it was probably unlikely that he would get a chance to make an audio recording of the score. In May of this year I updated the survey and I repeated this lament, little knowing that just a matter of weeks earlier Sir Andrew had been in the studios for Chandos to make this recording. The second reason for celebration is the participation of Sarah Connolly singing the role of The Angel. Several times when reviewing recordings of the work I’ve expressed the hope that she would be invited to record this role while still at the height of her powers but as the list of conductors who might record the work but had still to do so reduced I began to despair. So it’s a great pleasure to find her appearing on this set and with the substantial bonus of her account of Sea Pictures.
 
Let’s start with Sea Pictures, as it came first chronologically. I’ve heard Miss Connolly sing this work live too, though not as often as Gerontius, and she’s also recorded the work previously (review) though I confess that I haven’t gone back to that disc to make comparisons. The last time I heard Sarah Connolly sing this work live I was a trifle disappointed (review): there’s no such feeling here, though. From the start of ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ the tone is lustrous, the words clear and that sets the standard for what follows. The accompaniment is distinguished too, with Davis bringing out lots of detail – I love the harp swirls. The performance of ‘In Haven’ is delicate, benefiting from the light, easy speed that Davis sets. Miss Connolly’s account of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ is intense and elevated. When we reach the climax at ‘He shall assist me to look higher’ her singing is ardent and I strongly approve of the way Sir Andrew moves the music forward, thereby avoiding any risk of portentousness. ‘Where Corals Lie’, probably the most popular of the set, comes off very well indeed. Both singer and conductor manage to give a very detailed rendition yet spontaneity is not lost. ‘The Swimmer’ is passionate and exciting, the music impelled forward with urgency. This is a splendid account of Elgar’s songs.

The Dream of Gerontius gets off to the best possible start with an excellent account of the Prelude. It’s evident that Davis has a deep-rooted understanding of the work just from hearing the way he shapes this marvellous exposition of the key themes. The other thing that’s evident is that the refulgent Chandos recording is going to be a real asset.
 
At the time of writing this review (October 2014) Stuart Skelton is singing the title role in English National Opera’s current production of Otello (review) and earlier this year he made a strong impression singing the role of Peter Grimes for the same company (r eview). I must confess that the first time I listened to this recording I thought I was going to be disappointed by his Gerontius, mainly in Part I. He has a big, ringing voice, ideal for the two aforementioned operatic roles, but I had the impression that there was insufficient dynamic variety in much of Part I. However, I didn’t have my score with me the first time. Further, more detailed listening, with access to the vocal score, suggests that my initial reaction may have been a little unfair. That said, I’m not convinced that Skelton is as successful as some tenors at suggesting a man in extremis during Part I – his voice is often too virile for that. On the other hand, his open-throated tone gives a great deal of pleasure and his diction is admirable. He certainly has the vocal heft for ‘Sanctus fortis’; in his hands much of this solo is a confident affirmation of faith though perhaps a touch of apprehension would have been appropriate here and there. ‘I can no more’ is well done and ‘Novissima hora est’ is even better: here Skelton displays the appropriate degree of frailty.

I admired much of what he does in Part II. The short Prelude is delivered with great refinement by the BBCSO strings; under Davis’s careful direction they impart a feeling that we are indeed in Another Place. Skelton takes his cue from that and sings with taste and feeling in the pages that follow, though I miss a sense of wonder at ‘How still it is’. He is very good in his dialogue with the Angel. Towards the end of Part II I don’t feel he conveys a proper sense of awe at ‘I go before my judge’. However, ‘Take me away’ is splendid, the opening phrase taken ardently in one breath – not all tenors can manage that. He gives a fine account of that solo and sings the last phrases with becoming sensitivity. Overall this is a very good, if not ideal, performance of the role. I don’t believe that Skelton surpasses some of the prime exponents of Gerontius on disc – in their different ways Paul Groves, Richard Lewis, John Mitchinson or the incomparable Heddle Nash – but even so I found much to admire in his singing.

Opposite him Sarah Connolly’s Angel is an unqualified success and I may as well say now that her performance of this role on disc is all I hoped for and well worth the wait. Throughout Part II she sings with great expression yet she’s careful never to overdo the emotion. This is a well-controlled performance and the sheer sound of her voice gives consistent pleasure. She clearly identifies strongly with the role – she must have sung it on countless occasions – and I admire greatly the way she always sings with a marvellous sense of line. I could single out dozens of felicitous touches. All the most memorable passages in the part are done beautifully: she truly radiates reassurance at ‘You cannot now cherish a wish’ while the Farewell is simply outstanding. There’s one very small passage that caught my ear because it seemed to sum up the understanding and attention to detail that she brings to the part. It’s the couple of bars just after cue 56 in the vocal score, ‘But thou knowest not my child what thou dost ask’. It’s only a short passage – marked Recit – but she delivers the text quite wonderfully in a way that bespeaks a tremendous depth of understanding of the role. Mention of Dame Janet Baker seems almost obligatory when one discusses this role: in my view Sarah Connolly here offers the best account of The Angel since Baker's 1964 recording with Barbirolli, which is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.

David Soar impresses in his two solos. He has a firm, very well-focused voice and he sings The Priest with authority and presence. He’s even better as The Angel of the Agony. Here he’s commanding and also lyrical. At the end of that marvellous passage ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour’ he sings the pianissimo note on the word ‘gaze’ with a real sense of gentle rapture.

The BBC Symphony Chorus gives one of the best choral contributions on disc that I can recall. Their singing has presence and flexibility while a combination of excellent choral training by Stephen Jackson and very good Chandos engineering means that the individual choral lines can all be heard clearly. In Part I the urgency the choir brings to ‘Rescue him’ is admirable and they make a first class contribution to the closing chorus of Part I. The Demons’ Chorus is vivid: there’s strong rhythmic articulation by the singers and at times they sound suitably nasty. In fact this is one of the best accounts of this chorus that I can recall hearing. The ladies are splendid as The Angelicals in the long build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ while that chorus itself is very well done indeed. I like the lightness that is brought to the 6/4 section after the first great outburst – with a less capable choir the section can sound prosaic – and when the double chorus gets going a little later on the stereo spread that Chandos achieves ensures we really hear the detail of both choirs – for example two bars after cue 96 in the vocal score there’s a little phrase sung by the gentlemen of Choir II that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before in performance but it registers here. I wonder if there was a bit of platform rearrangement just for this chorus so that Choir I is on one side and Choir II is on the other? It sounds that way and you could never obtain that effect in a live performance but if that’s been done here then the results justify it.

The only choral disappointment – and it’s not the fault of the singers – is that the very important semi-chorus is not a bit more distantly placed. There’s not quite enough differentiation between the semi-chorus and the main choir. The best effect is achieved if you have a completely different choir, preferably including young voices, for the semi-chorus. Sample the recordings by Britten or Elder (review) to hear what a difference this makes. Chandos have missed a trick here.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays splendidly throughout. There are many examples of refined playing yet when power is needed the orchestra supplies it in full measure – the great crash immediately before ‘Take me away’ is thrilling.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts with great commitment and understanding. Very often when you listen to a favourite work there are points, often minor, that you wish the conductor had done differently. No such instances occurred here. Davis has the complete measure of the score and his grasp of Elgarian style seems as instinctive as it is complete. A performance such as this or his equally fine account of the Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little (review) surely consolidates his reputation, alongside Sir Mark Elder, as the finest Elgar conductors currently before the public.

As a bonus, after the oratorio, Davis conducts a second performance of the Gerontius Prelude. I’m not quite sure what is achieved by this as it’s the same music that we hear in the full work except for a sustained chord at the end. Chandos allows a gap of 16 seconds before the Prelude is heard but I’d still advise listeners to hit the pause button so that the atmosphere that Davis and his performers have built up over some 90 minutes is not spoiled.

The performance of Gerontius – and that of Sea Pictures - has been captured in outstanding sound by the Chandos team. I listened to the SACD layer and found it splendid. It’s a typically refulgent, full-blooded Chandos recording but, as so often with this company, one that reports the soft passages equally successfully and which conveys a great amount of detail as well as a thrilling big picture to the listener. I don’t think I’ve heard The Dream of Gerontius in better sound. An excellent booklet is the icing on the cake.

Where does this new Gerontius stand in the pantheon? It doesn’t quite dislodge the two Hallé recordings - by Barbirolli and Elder - in my affections but this new version by Sir Andrew Davis runs them pretty close and is, I believe, one of the very best now on the market.

One final thought. Chandos have presumably made this recording because their Hickox recording, recently reissued (review), was made as long ago as 1988, though it still sounds very good. In the following two years, 1989 and 1990, Hickox recorded The Kingdom and The Apostles (review) respectively. Given that all three of these Hickox recordings are of a similar age I wonder if Chandos would consider new versions of the other two oratorios. Sir Andrew opened the 2014 BBC Proms with The Kingdom (review) and I have a feeling that earlier in 2014 he also conducted BBC forces in The Apostles. Given the distinction of this new Gerontius, which worthily marks the eightieth anniversary of the composer’s death it would be more than good news if Chandos were to invite Davis to record the other two oratorios for them. Even if they’re unable to take that step they’re to be congratulated for making such a notable addition to the Gerontius discography – and for capturing on disc at last Sarah Connolly’s portrayal of The Angel.

John Quinn