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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) The Severn Suite, Op 87 (1930) [19:28]
London Collegiate Brass/James Stobart The Dream of Gerontius, Op, 38 (1900) [89:51]
Robert Tear (tenor) – Gerontius; Alfreda Hodgson (contralto) – The Angel; Benjamin Luxon (baritone) – The Priest/The Angel of the Agony
Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Alexander Gibson
rec. Civic Centre, Motherwell (Gerontius); Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London (Severn Suite). Dates not specified
English text included CRD 33267 [54:31 + 54:39]
This recording of The Dream of Gerontius was one of the very few that I was unable to consider in my survey of recordings because until now I had never heard it. Before considering Sir Alexander Gibson’s recording, however, I should mention the coupling.
The Severn Suite makes an odd bedfellow for Gerontius. It’s Elgar’s only work for brass band though his orchestral scores bear witness to his great flair for writing for brass instruments. Composed as a test-piece for the National Brass Band Championship, it was written long after his previous major score, the Cello Concerto (1919). It contains some fine music and though I’m not a brass player myself, I should think that it puts all sections of the band through their paces. Elgar thought sufficiently well of it that he orchestrated it in 1932. According to the notes the original full score was lost for many years and when it came to light it was found that the music was pitched a tone higher than in the published version. What is played here is a performing edition by Geoffrey Brand which restores the music to its original pitch and also incorporates some changes that Elgar made to the work in the course of orchestrating it.
The performance by London Collegiate Brass is a fine one. There’s brilliance in abundance but Elgar calls for sensitivity in many sections of the piece and James Stobart and his players deliver that. The work is cast in five movements, including a Coda. Reprehensibly, CRD present the whole work as a single track. I’ll have more to say on this downright lazy tracking policy later.
I’m unsure when either of these recordings were made: CRD don’t supply that information. However, since the album bears a publication date of 1976 I guess both were set down in the mid-1970s.
Sir Alexander Gibson conducts a performance of Gerontius that is often very persuasive. I don’t know whether it’s his strong operatic pedigree coming to the fore but on a number of occasions he’s not afraid to set swift tempi. For example much of ‘Sanctus fortis’ moves along quite briskly. In some ways I found that refreshing but eventually I came to the view that the music was being pressed just a little too much during this aria. In the brief prelude to Part II the music flows but I think it moves just a little too swiftly and that’s a pity because the strings of the SNO (at that time the orchestra had not achieved Royal recognition) is excellent and a slightly more expansive tempo would have worked very well. The Demons' Chorus is blistering but in the second section, where the music moves into triple time, I thought the speed was just a bit too fast and definition suffered, as is the case at the end of ‘Praise to the Holiest’. However, if you want to avoid the sanctimonious in this score then Gibson offers drama and a breath of fresh air.
I have never been Robert Tear’s greatest fan. All too often his voice has a beat in it and I don’t quite warm to the timbre. However, I admired a lot of what he does in this performance. His opening solo, for example, is very good and later in Part I he floats ‘Novissima hora est’ with wonderful poetry. He offers a great deal of sensitivity in Part II as well and the fluid tempi that Gibson adopts suit him in the opening solos of Part II. There are one or two drawbacks, including a tendency to spread loud high notes, and by the end of ‘Sanctus fortis’ he sounds rather strained – though perhaps that’s not inappropriate. Overall I think he’s a good Gerontius.
For my taste Benjamin Luxon is a bit too forceful as The Priest in Part I. It sounds as if Gerontius is being ordered to ‘Go forth upon thy journey’. However, Luxon is a formidable Angel of the Agony. He’s much more convincing in this solo.
The Scottish National Chorus offer resilient and committed singing. The opening of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ really blazes and they harden their tone just enough to suggest nastiness in the Demons' Chorus without descending into caricature. One disappointment is that the semi-chorus either sings too softly or has been placed at too great a distance; their contributions aren’t sufficiently ‘present’, especially in the plainchant litany passage in Part I. In the long build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ the ladies of the choir make a nice sound as the Angelicals but their singing isn’t as well defined as the singing that can be heard on several rival versions. The orchestra plays very well.
There is one overarching reason why lovers of this work should hear this recording: the singing of Alfreda Hodgson as the Angel. Here is another reminder of what a grave loss to British musical life was the death of this fine singer in 1992 at the age of just 52. Throughout this performance she sings with warm, lustrous tone and an evident understanding of and commitment to the role. ‘A presage falls upon thee’ is delivered with lovely tome and seamless legato and a few minutes later her singing of the passage beginning ‘Yes, for one moment’ has a gentle radiance that I find very moving. Her voice is completely secure throughout its compass and she crowns her performance with a richly consoling rendition of the Farewell. Hers is one of the finest assumptions of the Angel on disc – and that’s saying something when you think of artists like Dame Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly.
So, as I say, this recording is desirable above all for its Angel. As for the other aspects I don’t believe that, for all its merits – and there are many – it displaces leading recommendations such as Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Andrew Davis, or Sir Mark Elder.
The recordings were engineered by Bob Auger and though they must be forty years old now they still sound well. The documentation includes an excellent note about Gerontius by Diana McVeagh. The presentation is let down by the frankly shoddy approach to tracking the discs. I mentioned earlier that the Severn Suite is contained within a single track. Sadly, that lazy and thoughtless approach extends to Gerontius also. Part I is divided into just two tracks – the second track starts at ‘Proficiscere’ – and Part II has only three tracks. That’s hardly helpful to listeners; can’t something be done to improve this on future pressings?