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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 [95:34]
Arthur Davies (tenor - Gerontius); Felicity Palmer (mezzo – The Angel); Norman Bailey (baritone – The Priest/Angel of the Agony)
London Symphony Chorus; USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Yevgeny Svetlanov
rec. live, 21 April 1983, Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
Text not included
MELODIYA MELCD1002266 [36:56 + 58:38]

In my survey of the recordings of The Dream of Gerontius I made a passing reference to this recording, which I have not previously heard. It has been issued before on LP and I have a recollection of seeing a review many years ago in Gramophone, though I cannot recall the content of that review. I’m not sure if the recording has ever appeared on CD but here it is now, issued as part of the celebrations of fifty years of the Melodiya label.

Not long after the problematic première of Gerontius in Birmingham in 1900 the work achieved much more of a success in Germany. However, it had to wait over eighty years for a hearing in Russia; the performance preserved here was the Russian première. I think Melodiya have missed a trick with their documentation: it would have been fascinating to know more about how Yevgeny Svetlanov came to the work and how the performance itself, with imported British singers, was brought about. Instead, all we are told in the booklet is that Svetlanov, “an inspired interpreter of Elgar’s music, who first heard The Dream of Gerontius in Britain, was absolutely amazed and set a goal of showing it in his home land.”

I’m bound to say that I had not previously associated Svetlanov with Elgar’s music though some internet research led me to a live 1977 recording by him in which he conducts the same orchestra in the Second Symphony and Sea Pictures sung in Russian by Larissa Avdeyeva (Scribendum SC 032). I see from his obituary in the Daily Telegraph that he conducted Gerontius in London with the Philharmonia in 1985.

Svetlanov imported British singers for this Moscow performance and I think he was wise to do so. The text of Gerontius doesn’t always flow easily off the tongue and I’m not sure how successful Russian singers would have been. His colleague, Gennady Rozhdestvensky used Russian singers when performing Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams in 1988 and the results were not too convincing (review). Svetlanov had the benefit of the LSO Chorus, trained by Richard Hickox as well as two of the three soloists, Arthur Davies and Felicity Palmer, who would later sing in Hickox’s own 1988 recording for Chandos (review).

For most people the decision whether or not to invest in the recording will depend primarily on the conducting of Svetlanov but first we must consider the singing. Arthur Davies is a ringing, full-throated Gerontius. You won’t find here the nuances that some other tenors have brought to the role but allowances have to be made for the fact that he was projecting into what I imagine is a fairly large hall. His account of ‘Sanctus, fortis’ is impassioned and a slight error over the words doesn’t derail his performance. At times in his dialogue with the Angel he doesn’t exhibit as much feeling for the words as I’d like but, as we shall see, I rather think the fault there lies with the conductor. ‘Take me away’ begins ardently and the remainder of that solo is well done. Davies is good overall but I think he’s heard to better advantage under studio conditions in the Hickox recording.

I believe I’m right in saying that Felicity Palmer sang as a soprano until around 1983; this, therefore, may have been one of her first performances of The Angel. There’s a good deal to admire in this performance and while the Hickox recording, made five years later, perhaps shows the benefit of greater familiarity with the role there’s a freshness in her approach here that is very appealing. She sings the Angel’s Farewell very convincingly and throughout her performance she exhibits fine feeling for the words. Her singing at ‘A presage falls upon thee’ is especially heartfelt and I love the way that, a few moments later, she inflects the words at ‘That calm and joy uprising in thy soul’. Palmer is the pick of the soloists. Norman Bailey is an imposing presence as The Priest and offers commanding singing as The Angel of the Agony. So far as I’m aware Bailey never took part in a commercial recording of Gerontius.

The London Symphony Chorus are here splendid ambassadors for British choral singing. Their singing evidences great familiarity with the music and I hope the Russian audience was seriously impressed: they should have been. What impressed me more than anything else was the choir’s attention to dynamics. Consistently they sing what Elgar asks but let me give two examples which particularly caught my attention. The first is in the great chorus ‘Praise to the Holiest’. Here the choir makes a tremendous sound in the opening outburst and they match that achievement when Elgar reprises the music. That’s not so remarkable; most choirs can do that. What most choirs cannot do, however, is match the LSO Chorus’ soft singing in the 6/4 passage that follows the opening paean. Here most of the dynamics are no louder than mp and often much quieter than that. Having followed in my score, I can attest that the LSO Chorus observes scrupulously every single one of Elgar’s copious markings and, my goodness, it makes a difference. In some accounts of this chorus it can seem as if Elgar rather ran out of creative steam after the exultant opening but that’s not the case here. I’m sure that Richard Hickox must deserve some of the credit for training them so well but two things incline me to give even more of the credit to Svetlanov. One is that the orchestra is equally responsive to the dynamics; the other is that on his own Chandos recording Hickox gets the LSO Chorus to observe the dynamics well in this passage – but not as completely as they did in Moscow. The other passage where the dynamics are exemplary is immediately after The Angel of the Agony has sung (cue 115 in the vocal score). The choir is instructed to sing ppp and that’s exactly what is heard here. To achieve this in a studio recording would be pretty impressive but in a live performance it’s even better. By insisting on observance of Elgar’s dynamics in this passage Svetlanov achieves a real sense of awed stillness.

Would that he had been so imaginative and accurate elsewhere in the score. Sadly, the conducting is uneven, not least in terms of tempo selection. The Prelude is very spacious indeed: I thought that Hickox was broad (review) but Svetlanov, who takes 11:09, is nearly a full minute longer. The metronome mark at the start is 60 crotchets to the minute but Svetlanov’s pace is around 40 crotchets per minute. From this initially lethargic speed flow the remaining tempi in the Prelude, all of them too slow. The Prelude to Part II fares even worse. The speed that Svetlanov adopts is significantly lower than Elgar marks and though his strings do well for him it’s all too drawn out. The material from the Prelude is revisited more than once during the tenor solos that follow but Svetlanov is inconsistent because he doesn’t revert to his original speed – thank goodness. It’s hard to avoid the feeling of misplaced piety in these Preludes.

In contrast, the pace that Svetlanov adopts for ‘Sanctus fortis’ is quite bracing, though not excessively so. What troubles me in this episode is not the speed itself but that Svetlanov doesn’t vary the pace more often. I listened in vain for many of the small nuances of tempo that a conductor more versed in the idiom might have made. In Part II, during the dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel, there are several instances – especially the sections in 5/8 time – where Svetlanov presses ahead unyieldingly. In so doing he obliges his singer, usually the tenor, to sing the words too quickly to enable them to be invested with any meaning. In these stretches of Part II in particular I wondered just how well Svetlanov understood the import of the English words, which aren’t exactly straightforward even to an English speaker. Against these less than convincing aspects, however, we must set many positives. The Demon’s Chorus is fast and exciting – though I think the fugal episode ‘Dispossessed, Aside thrust’, is a bit too brisk and even the LSO Chorus sounds a bit gabbled here. The very end of Part I (from cue 75), though taken slowly, is very beautiful. I’ve already mentioned Svetlanov’s fine handling of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ and the Farewell is also done very well indeed. In these closing pages Svetlanov once again ensures that everyone is attentive to the dynamics. Felicity Palmer sings this last solo very expressively and the conductor shapes the ensemble with no little feeling, though the last ‘Amen’ is very long indeed.

It’s clear from everything he does that Svetlanov’s admiration for the score and his desire to conduct it in Russia was very genuine. The USSR State Symphony Orchestra plays well, if not flawlessly, for him though an orchestra such as the LSO would have brought not just more incisiveness and polish to the score but also more in the way of idiomatic understanding of its finer points. It’s interesting to hear characteristic Russian brass sounds – bright trumpets and vibrato-rich horns – in this music. All in all, the first performance of this great score in Russia was a worthy one.

The recorded sound is satisfactory for a live performance that is more than thirty years old but quite a bit of orchestral detail is unclear and there’s a tendency for the choral sound to regress in loud passages, perhaps as the engineers sought to control the peak signals. The booklet essay – in Russian with English and French translations - is a basic introduction to the work but goodness knows what Russian listeners in particular are expected to make of the work when no texts or translations are provided. One aspect of the presentation is unpardonably sloppy. Twice there are glaring gaps in the music, each lasting for seven or eight seconds. One occurs in Part II after ‘Praise to the Holiest’; the other, which is even more damaging, occurs part way through ‘Sanctus, fortis’ at cue 53 in the vocal score. No music is lost but the gaps are very disconcerting and the flow of the music is completely compromised. The only explanation I can think of is that these breaks correspond with side changes on the original LP issue. It’s unforgivable that Melodiya haven’t made a better job of the transfer; these gaps could so easily have been corrected.

This recording can never be a first choice but, despite its flaws it’s an interesting addition to the discography of The Dream of Gerontius. It’s also a valuable document, illustrating an unexpected side to this Russian conductor who could be volatile but, at his best, inspirational.

John Quinn

Footnote
Since writing this review Edward Johnson has kindly sent me some interesting information. He has the original Melodiya LP issue of Svetlanov’s Gerontius and the notes which accompanied that LP release include comments from Svetlanov himself. The great Russian conductor recalls attending a performance of Gerontius in London: “I dreamed of performing the oratorio with which I acquainted myself in the 60s. The first impression was so strong that I shall always remember all the details of that amazing performance in the 6000-seat Albert hall under the unforgettable Sir Malcolm Sargent.” Svetlanov goes on to relate that in 1981 his dream came true and he conducted Gerontius twice in the Festival Hall with the LSO and LSO Chorus and English soloists. He says “That for me was a serious test for the performance of this work is  a privilege of only English musicians.” Those London performances were followed by the Russian premiere, preserved on this Melodiya recording. It would seem clear from these comments that Svetlanov himself brought about the Russian premiere of the work. If Melodiya had thought to reproduce the LP notes with the CD then Svetlanov’s initiative in bringing Elgar’s music to the USSR would hev been readily apparent.  

Mr Johnson also confirmed a suspicion I voiced in my review: “As to the “gaps” that John Quinn refers to, I’ve just checked these and they occur at the places where there were side-breaks on the original LPs (see also attached). Clearly the Melodiya engineers should have realised this was a continuous live performance and joined up the tapes of the four LP sides accordingly. Not to have done so was very sloppy and unforgiveable.”

Another review ...

This was an important historical occasion, being the Russian premiere of Elgar’s masterpiece at the behest of Svetlanov, who loved the work. Presumably he became familiar with it during his tenure as Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO after his appointment in 1979. Interestingly, for all the success of this performance, his recording in the late 1970s of the Second Symphony and Sea Pictures was a crude and ill-conceived affair; this “Gerontius”, a couple of years later in 1981, is very different.

There has been some criticism of his tempi as eccentric, yet overall the timings are very similar to other celebrated recordings by Barbirolli, Boult and Hickox. Incidentally, the latter is the choir director here, and a very good one, too. The only faster recording I know of is Sir Mark Elder’s recent one with the Hallé. There are a few moments where Svetlanov’s approach is noticeably extreme, especially the very leisurely Prelude, which some find too drawn out at 11:09, but I hear it as played with a grand, imposing sweep. Conversely, the “Sanctus fortis” is too hectic for some listeners but again, for me, aptly conveys the drama of the moment. Indeed, I have no interpretative quarrel with Svetlanov’s performance; he clearly loves the piece and brings terrific impact to key points such as the thrilling choral outburst on “Praise to the Holiest” and the deeply moving “Take me away”.

The soloists are first rate, if not perfect. Not everyone responds to the distinctive, tangy timbre of Felicity Palmer’s mezzo-soprano but I love it. It is useful that her voice is so different from that of Janet Baker in her definitive recordings that invidious comparisons may largely be avoided. She is meltingly tender and intensely radiant by turns, despite some harshness in her loudest, highest notes. Norman Bailey is a grand Priest and a stentorian Angel, bringing a touch of Wotan to the proceedings. He is mostly very steady and secure except for a slightly rough first entry on the exposed “Proficiscere”. Arthur Davies was a famous Gerontius and although his habit of applying too many expressive “coups de glotte” can become mildly irksome, he has an easy, rousing top B flat at his disposal and sings most expressively. By the time he made his studio recording for Hickox, however, he had somewhat tamed the lachrymose mannerisms more obvious here in this live performance.

Given that the sound here is perfectly full and well balanced for an analogue recording from the early 1980s and the standard of performance is so high, what prevents me from giving this an unqualified endorsement? In a word, the coughing; the incessant hacking from the Moscow audience is very distracting, and they save their most percussive bronchial intrusions for the quietest moments, such as the choir’s lovely “O Holy Mary, pray for me”, the gently rocking introduction to “I went to sleep” (if only) and the sublime last movement. Sad reviewer that I am, I counted over eighty instances which cumulatively belie the reputation of Russian audiences for appreciative attentiveness.

So for all its artistic merits and historical significance, this cannot displace either the classic or more recent recordings. There are, in addition, several odd technical flaws in the recording: noticeable fades between tracks 3 and 4 on CD 1, and again on CD 2 in track 5 and two minutes into track 2. I continue to applaud the attractiveness of the packaging of Melodiya’s recent issues; the neat, fold-out cardboard slipcases are strikingly designed and I like the retro LP-style CD. However, while notes and track-listings in Russian and English are provided, no English text is included.

Ralph Moore