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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, op 36 ‘Enigma’ [29:00]
The Dream of Gerontius, Op 38 [96:43]
Jon Vickers (tenor), Constance Shacklock (contralto), Marian Nowakowski (bass)
RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Rome/Sir John Barbirolli (Gerontius)
RAI Symphony Orchestra, Turin/Sir John Barbirolli (Enigma)
rec. live 15 November 1960, Turin (Enigma); 20 November 1957, RAI Auditorium, Rome ADD. Mono.
English text included
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1105-06 [66:58 +58:43]

The performance of The Dream of Gerontius which Sir John Barbirolli conducted in Rome in 1957 has been available on CD before, most recently in a transfer on the Archipel label which I reviewed back in 2008. This welcome reissue by the Barbirolli Society offers it with a different and much more appropriate coupling in the shape of a performance of the ‘Enigma’ Variations, which JB gave, also for the Italian broadcaster, RAI, in 1960, but this time in Turin.

When I reviewed the Archipel issue of Gerontius I concluded by saying that “this performance really adds nothing to our view of Barbirolli’s interpretation of Gerontius...” Whilst I stand by that comment, Robert Matthew-Walker makes an important point in his perceptive booklet essay for this new release. He refers to the “impressive consistency of aesthetic interpretative quality that shines through [Barbirolli’s] performances”. We might debate, for example, the fact that JB became more expansive in many of his performances as the years went by – I think of his recordings of the Elgar or Brahms symphonies as examples – but the point about consistency is well made and a rather more elegant way of saying that one hears essentially the same, experienced and well-considered view of Gerontius from the podium in 1957 and 1964.

I went on to express a preference for the 1964 EMI recording over the 1957 Rome traversal, not least because EMI’s recorded sound was so much better and because I preferred the orchestral and choral contributions. However, lovers of Gerontius should hear this Rome performance because nowhere else on disc will they be able to hear either Jon Vickers in the title role or Constance Shacklock as The Angel; both are considerable role assumptions.

I considered the performance in detail in 2008. I will summarise here. Vickers, who was thirty-one at the time of this performance, was on fine form. I noted that Vickers was attentive to Elgar’s copious score markings and commented also that I thought Elgar would have rejoiced to hear such an heroic tenor voice in the role and that he would surely have approved of Vickers’ sensitivity to the more subtle nuances in the part. My major reservation, which I still hold, was that he mars much of the last solo, ‘Take me away’ through an excess of emotion which tips his singing over into sounding lachrymose. However, I’d urge listeners to focus rather on the many positive features of a significant account of the title role.

I greatly admired Constance Shacklock’s performance. She may not surpass the unforgettable singing of Janet Baker in the 1964 EMI recording but her performance is deeply satisfying. You can tell as you listen that here is someone steeped in the best traditions of English oratorio. In my previous review I described her performance as authoritative and straightforward; at all times it’s evident that she’s fully inside the role. Furthermore, it is a boon that Shacklock is a genuine contralto so the lowest-lying passages fit her voice perfectly.

It has been said in many quarters that Kim Borg’s unidiomatic performance – and English pronunciation – was the weak link in the EMI recording; that’s a view I share. In 1957 Barbirolli had the services of a Polish bass, Marian Nowakowski. I prefer him to Borg but even so I don’t feel he’s comfortable fit in the role. He’s sonorous but ponderous as The Priest and, for my taste, he puts too much into The Angel of the Agony’s solo.

There are pros and cons to the chorus. Michael Kennedy has recorded that both the conductor himself and also Sir William Walton, who heard the broadcast in Ischia, were impressed. I admire their commitment and it’s worth noting that Barbirolli wrote to Michael Kennedy after the Rome performance “Longing to tell you of the wonderful performance of the Dream they gave me here….Chorus was absolutely incredible, and I don’t think I have ever heard it sung better.” The choir is certainly fervent – and also skilled when it comes to soft singing – but it has to be said that their enunciation of the English text is not ideal. Nonetheless, they certainly don’t let the side down overall. Furthermore, they are heard much more distinctly in this new transfer than was the case on the Archipel version which I previously reviewed.

The orchestra plays with great commitment too, even if not always with the greatest refinement. The brass are sometimes a bit coarse, but the orchestra clearly does its very best for Barbirolli.

As I indicated earlier, when one compares this 1957 performance and the 1964 recording, there are few significant differences in terms of Barbirolli’s conducting. The 1957 performance finds him lingering a little from time to time but never at the expense of the overall view that he has of the score. This is the performance of a man who loved Gerontius deeply and who knew and understood it thoroughly. It is, above all, a reading of great conviction. One thing to be aware of is that you will hear a large number of audible groans from the podium – quite often, I think, he’s mouthing the words to the chorus and making a noise as he does so. One can hear some noises from the podium on the 1964 recording too, but the tendency was much more marked on this occasion. Perhaps JB was picked up by the soloists’ microphones.

They key question, of course, is how this new release from the Barbirolli Society, digitally remastered by Ian Jones, compares with the Archipel release in terms of sound. Frankly it’s no contest. Right at the start on Archipel one notices how close the orchestra seems in the Prelude. By contrast, Ian Jones has managed to put more space on and round the sound so that the orchestra is more pleasingly heard. And I now realise that I did the string players an injustice when I reviewed the Archipel release: I accused them of not playing quietly enough in the Prelude to Part II. The Barbirolli Society transfer proves that they did indeed play quietly; the Archipel transfer brought them too close and, in the process, did them no favours. Every A/B comparison I made inclined me to prefer the new transfer. The choir is heard to better advantage – and not as indistinctly as I experienced on the Archipel discs – and there is more bloom on the soloists’ voices. With the Archipel discs I felt I was indeed listening to a vintage recording; that’s much less the case in Ian Jones’ remastering. His transfer of this recording is undoubtedly the one to go for.

There’s one other factor in the new release’s favour. Archipel coupled Gerontius, rather oddly, with the 1947 Barbirolli/Hallé commercial recording of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, whereas the Barbirolli Society opt for the much more logical coupling of the ‘Enigma’ Variations. That’s a much shorter work and it’s placed at the start of Disc 1. This means that Part I of Gerontius occupies the rest of that CD and the whole of Part II is on disc 2. By contrast, Archipel place the Berlioz after Gerontius on CD2, meaning that you need to switch discs partway through Part II, immediately after ‘Praise to the Holiest’; that’s very destructive. One final comparative disadvantage for the Archipel release is that there is no documentation whatsoever apart from a track list. The Barbirolli Society, by contrast, offers the full text of Gerontius plus an excellent essay by Robert Matthew-Walker. Game, set and match, then, to the new release.

As the coupling, we get a performance of the ‘Enigma’ Variations which Sir John conducted in 1960 with another RAI orchestra, this time the one based in Turin. On the evidence of these two recordings, the Turin ensemble was rather more polished than their Rome counterparts, though as Robert Matthew-Walker observes, the music they were asked to play may have been more familiar than Gerontius was in Rome. The Turin orchestra is better recorded too. I presume this performance has been available on CD before – the Barbirolli Society don’t claim it as a premiere release – but I’ve not heard it.

The performance of ‘Enigma’ is a very enjoyable one. The orchestra plays the theme with warmth and each of the succeeding variations is nicely done. In ‘R.P.A.’ for example, there’s a very pleasing mix of broad cantabile on the one hand and dexterous playing from strings and woodwind elsewhere. There’s a dashing account of ‘Troyte’ while ‘Nimrod’ is splendidly done. Here, Barbirolli’s interpretation makes it abundantly clear that this is not an elegy; the music moves forward with strength and dignity. The orchestra brings pleasing delicacy to ‘Dorabella’ and great vitality to ‘G.R.S.’. Barbirolli and the orchestra then round off this great score with an energised performance of the Finale.

This is a very valuable release of two notable Elgar performances by Sir John Barbirolli. If you don’t have the 1957 Rome Gerontius in your collection it’s well worth acquiring, not just as a valuable supplement to the celebrated EMI recording but also because it offers the only chance to hear Jon Vickers and Constance Shacklock in this work; neither is to be missed. If you already have the Archipel set I think it’s well worth trading up and acquiring this new release because Ian Jones’ transfer does proper justice to the performance, allowing us to appreciate it much more fully.

John Quinn

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