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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius (1900) [89.56]
Severn Suite (1930) [19.28]
Robert Tear (tenor), Alfreda Hodgson (contralto), Benjamin Luxon (baritone)
Scottish National Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson
London Collegiate Brass/James Stobart (Severn)
rec. Civic Centre, Motherwell (Gerontius); Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London (Severn), dates not given but originally released in 1976 (Gerontius) and 1985 (Severn)
CRD 33267 [2 CDs: 109:24]

As is well-known, the first performance of Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham in May 1900 was one of music’s great disasters. Many of these catastrophes in history were due to incomprehension or downright hostility on the part of the audience, but in the opinion of those who were in Birmingham Town Hall the failure of Gerontius was entirely attributable to the inadequacies of the presentation, despite the stellar names in the roster of performers. It was not for some years that Gerontius recovered from this inauspicious start, but it has to be noted that the oratorio remains peculiarly difficult to bring off in live performance and is probably the hardest single work still to feature regularly in the repertory of amateur choral societies.

However the piece has been very fortunate on disc, with a considerable number of studio recordings which rank high in the pantheon of fame, though at the same time, none of them can lay claim to being the ultimate word on a score which relentlessly exposes the slightest weakness in rendition. Despite their many excellent points, neither of the mono sets conducted by Sargent can begin to come to terms with the complexities of Elgar’s scoring. Of the studio recordings in stereo, all have faults. The first stereo set under Sir John Barbirolli has the supreme advantage of Dame Janet Baker’s young Angel, effortlessly rising to the highest notes and at the same time breathing compassion; but Richard Lewis is out of sorts in places as Gerontius (he was suffering from a cold at the time of recording), and Kim Borg’s bullish bass and curdled English accent are a severe trial. Benjamin Britten’s treatment of the score is almost iconoclastic in places with his fast speeds in the closing section of Praise to the Holiest; he has in John Shirley-Quirk the most sympathetic exponent of the bass roles, but Sir Peter Pears is his own idiosyncratic self as Gerontius and Yvonne Minton, although beautiful in sound, lacks Baker’s passion. Sir Adrian Boult’s set is more mainstream in conception, less wilful than either Barbirolli or Britten and all the better for that. But Nicolai Gedda sounds unidiomatic as Gerontius, and Helen Watts finds it necessary to take Elgar’s lower option in her final Alleluia (which clearly was approved by the composer, but which surely robs the moment of its sense of apotheosis). Sets later than the one under review here also have their drawbacks: both Sir Simon Rattle and Richard Hickox are nearly as fast as Britten in places, and the former suffers from the fact that both Baker and Shirley-Quirk are in less reliable voice than their earlier selves while John Mitchinson is nearly as unsteady as Pears. Hickox has the most effective of all Gerontiuses in Arthur Davies, but Dame Felicity Palmer is hardly soothing as the Angel. In recent years the only new studio release has been that conducted by Sir Andrew Davis issued by Chandos in 2014 where Stuart Skelton challenges Arthur Davies for virility of sound if not for warmth, and Sarah Connolly is the only Angel to match Baker in the role.

Nearly all other sets on CD or video seem to have derived from live performances or sessions (those conducted by Vernon Handley on EMI and by David Hill on Naxos I have not heard, although neither seem to have garnered much critical favour), and although many of these have exceptional merit (notably those conducted by Sakari Oramo and on video by Sir Andrew Davis) none of them can claim the detailed exactitude of delivery which Elgar really demands, not least in the difficult matter of balance between sections of the chorus which at one point divides into as many as thirteen independent parts during the closing movement of Part One. This finally brings us to the CRD recording under consideration here, which has long been the subject of faint praise from reviewers. The Penguin Guide describes it as not really competitive, and Alan Blyth in Choral Music on Record (as also in his Gramophone review) is even more dismissive: “the most dispensable of the complete sets, because it misses individuality of utterance”.

Well, the set may not scale the heights of some individual elements in the alternative studio sets, but at the same time it avoids almost entirely the pitfalls. Let us look at the solo singers first.

Cardinal Newman’s Gerontius in his original poem is an old man who is dying in Part One and then going to meet his Maker as a suppliant in Part Two. The essential element is the fact that he is an old man, as his Latin name indeed testifies. Elgar’s Gerontius is a somewhat different character; the composer described him as a “worldly man” and his music commands a sense of vigour and strength which is hardly justified by the text but which is certainly necessary for the delivery of strenuous passages such as I can no more or Take me away. Many of the Gerontiuses in the studio recordings are (to put it kindly) veterans of many years’ experience, and only Arthur Davies and Stuart Skelton may be described as in the flush of prime vocally. They alone can supply the Italianate warmth needed for such a passage as Sanctus fortis while at the same time being able to support the sense of still rapture at the beginning of Part Two. Of their rivals Robert Tear in this recording is by some considerable measure the youngest singer, and the one whose employment of full tone is not undermined by a degree of unsteadiness (one forbears to judge Richard Lewis, who was exactly right in his earlier but (alas) mono recording). Indeed, in places Tear might be regarded as too healthy in tone and vigour.

By the same token Alfreda Hodgson as the Angel, while not matching the superlative account of the young Baker, is a very considerable plus in this recording. The part requires a warmth of tone and fullness in the lower register which in the wrong hands can lead to the role sounding more like Gerontius’s mother than his guardian spirit. Newman’s Angel indeed appears to be masculine in gender; Elgar, doubtless with sheer practicability in mind, made the role feminine but it should surely also have an other-worldly quality. And although he made provision for the highest notes to be taken in a lower register for the benefit of contraltos, for full effect the singer really needs to be able to gleam above the stave; it is notable that Barbirolli insisted on hearing the young Baker’s top A before casting her in his recording. Hodgson can rise to all the high notes which cause problems to Watts, and she sounds rather more involved than Minton as well as more womanly than Palmer.

The bass role in Gerontius has very occasionally been split between two singers, as in Sargent’s 1945 set of 78s – Alan Blyth claims that the baritone part of the Priest in Part One should be distinguished from the basso cantante required for the Angel of the Agony in Part Two. But the score clearly specifies one singer to undertake both roles, and that is surely the way Elgar would have expected performances to be staged. Benjamin Luxon is a baritone, but he can reach down effectively into the lower register; Boult and Hickox with their heavier basses (Robert Lloyd and Gwynne Howell respectively) find their singers can equally well encompass the higher register. Lloyd and Howell are both steadier voices than Luxon’s, although the loose vibrato that could afflict the latter singer in his later years is not too evident here; but best of all is the young-ish Shirley-Quirk for Britten, his voice like burnished gold without the slightest suggestion of hectoring (the Angel of the Agony can sound ‘pushy’ if his supplications are too forcefully delivered).

Which brings us to the matter of the conductor, chorus and orchestra. Sir Alexander Gibson already had quite a reputation as an Elgarian in the period before this Gerontius was released, and his recording of The Spirit of England had helped to rescue a work that had been consigned to outer darkness for years. The choir and orchestra both rise to the many challenges of the score with enthusiasm and conviction. Gibson’s approach to the work is dramatic and forward-thrusting, and the recorded sound has a very wide dynamic range which can well encompass the extremes of Elgar’s demands.

When reviewing the latest Chandos release for this site John Quinn described it as “one of the best on the market” alongside the Barbirolli recording and a more recent live performance under Sir Mark Elder. But I would rank the Gibson release here fairly highly too; it may not be the most enthralling in terms of its individual elements, but it does not have any of the drawbacks that vitiate so many other recordings. If that sounds like faint praise, it is not intended to be disparaging in a work that is extremely difficult to bring off as a whole. At the same time the new Chandos set under Sir Andrew Davis may well over time establish itself as an even more complete revelation.

Whereas on LP Gerontius always fitted neatly onto a pair of discs, for CD it has been usual to furnish a coupling of some description – not always invariably music by Elgar. Although I would not argue that these couplings, ranging from the brief to the generous, should influence a buyer, the version of the Severn Suite here has more than a passing claim on the potential purchaser. Elgar originally wrote the work for brass band, but for many years both the original manuscript and the performing score by Henry Geehl had disappeared. When the latter was rediscovered in 1980, it was found to be a full tone higher than the published version (which Elgar himself later orchestrated) and Geoffrey Brand produced a version in the original key which also took note of changes the composer had introduced into the orchestral score. The differences are minor but the presentation is obviously of interest to Elgarians and the recording of the score, made in a resonant acoustic, is superbly well assured. There are only three alternative recordings of the brass band version shown in the current listings, all of them consisting of miscellaneous concerts of music by various composers.

The booklet gives us the full text and translation of Gerontius, but the tracks are supplied with a niggardly hand, seemingly corresponding to those on the original LP release and presenting the whole of the Severn Suite without any break between movements. Although Diana McVeagh’s booklet note on the work remains, the analysis of the music by Jaeger (Elgar’s “Nimrod”) which distinguished the original LP set has now vanished. Oddly enough excerpts from the oratorio have also previously been available at super-bargain price on Regis, which those who want a recording with these specific performers will presumably already have. But a first-time comer to Gerontius could do worse.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Further reading: John Quinn’s survey of Gerontius recordings

 

 




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