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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius - Oratorio in two parts after a text by Cardinal John Newman for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 38 (1900)
Paul Groves (tenor) (Gerontius)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo) (The Angel)
John Relyea (bass) (The Priest/The Angel of Agony)
Staatsopernchor Dresden
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 28 March 2010, Semperoper, Dresden, Germany
English text included
PROFIL EDITION PH12017 [36.31 + 57.29]

Today Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius is considered a seminal work in English choral repertory. This was not always so. At its first performance in October 1900 at the Birmingham Triennial Festival under Hans Richter the work, regarded as highly controversial and challenging, was not well received mainly due to an ill-prepared chorus. As it turned out successes for Gerontius were not far away. Julius Buths who had prepared a German translation of the text conducted a performance in Düsseldorf, Germany in December 1901 which was described as triumph.

Elgar in this case set an abridged text by Cardinal John Henry Newman - a Church of England convert to Roman Catholicism. Many commentators and public were suspicious of the Roman Catholic subject matter. The narrative tells of a soul’s journey through death to Purgatory for purification before the promise of everlasting life, a subject that went against the doctrine of the Anglican Church. Elgar found difficulty in obtaining performances of Gerontius in Anglican cathedrals and in response for around a decade a revised text was used. In addition the Wagnerian influences (especially Parsifal) in Gerontius, were for many too progressive and difficult for performers such as the Birmingham Festival Choir who premièred the work and too challenging for audiences. Now Gerontius is generally considered as one of Elgar’s finest. Although the work is infrequently performed in Germany today the oratorio received great approbation with a series of performances in 2012 by the great Berliner Philharmoniker under Daniel Barenboim with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists Anna Larsson (mezzo), Ian Storey (tenor) and Kwangchoul Youn (bass) at the Philharmonie, Berlin.

Sir Colin Davis first conducted the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in 1981 whilst the city was still in the GDR and went on to collaborate with the orchestra over 300 times becoming its first Conductor Laureate in 1990. On the 28 March 2010 Sir Colin gave this performance of Gerontius at one of the long established series of Palm Sunday Concerts on the Sunday before Easter at the Semperoper, Dresden.

A vastly experienced choral conductor, Sir Colin’s intelligent direction provides a moving spiritual experience. The strong trio of soloists rise to the occasion maintaining that crucial sense of reverence. As Gerontius tenor Paul Groves is clear and resilient. He displays excellent diction, splendidly unruffled with a voice revealing a certain world-weariness. Especially impressive was his Gerontius pleading to be taken to purgatory ‘Take me away and in the lowest deeps there let me be’. Excellent too, although a little stern, is the engaging and thoughtful performance of mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. In the Angel’s consoling song of humanity that crowns the work ‘Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul’ Connolly is strong and secure, displaying a deep piety. Bass John Relyea does a steady job in his dual part of The Priest/The Angel of Agony, however, his diction could have been clearer. Dark sounding and highly affecting is the ‘Judgement’ scene with the Angel of Agony beseeching Jesus to ‘spare these souls which are do dear to Thee’ with the persuasive Relyea meaning every word. Well occupied throughout, the Staatsopernchor Dresden seems well prepared with a disciplined approach, sharp in focus smartly bringing out the dramatic contrasts displayed so eminently in the ‘Demons Chorus’. It is difficult to tell that the Dresden chorus is not made up of native English speakers. Under the masterly pacing of Sir Colin, the Staatskapelle Dresden play this Elgar score with all the warmth and distinction I have come to expect from this elite orchestra.

This outstanding recording can certainly compete with the account of Gerontius that I play most often which is the deeply felt 2008 reading from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé orchestra and choir at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Elder’s soloists were Alice Coote (mezzo) - The Angel; Paul Groves (tenor) – Gerontius; Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone) - The Priest and The Angel of The Agony on the Hallé’s own label (review).

On Profil this winning Dresden Gerontius is pleasingly presented with an excellent booklet containing full English texts and a number of interesting essays, a short interview with Sir Colin and several photographs. Recorded by MDR Figaro for radio broadcast in the splendid acoustic of the Semperoper, Dresden the sound quality is good without being spectacular; clear with a decent balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Michael Cookson
 
Previous review: John Quinn