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Gemini - Elgar: The Dream Of Gerontius, Enigma Variations

Release Date: 10/23/2007 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 00061   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Dame Janet BakerJohn Shirley-QuirkJohn Mitchinson
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraCity of Birmingham Symphony ChorusBerlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 23 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

I have discussed earlier recordings of this magnificent work in previous reviews. In brief, I found Gibson's performance to be consistently fine, but generally understated and small in scale; Boult's boasts excellent soloists and large forces, but is poorly paced; Barbirolli's is the most profound and sympathetic conception, but suffers from poor recording quality and a mediocre tenor. For further details 1 refer the reader to Fanfare 11:1 (pp. 196-97) and to the reviews cited there.

This new recording of Elgar's masterpiece, sponsored by Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds Ltd. and recorded in the city for which the work was written and where it was first performed, has been eagerly awaited, those who have expected it to set a new
Read more standard among Gerontius recordings will probably not be disappointed; indeed, it is in many ways the best—perhaps even the first—truly "modern" recorded performance, and 1 mean by this more than just the fact that it is the first totally digital version, though it is clearly the best-sounding recording yet. By "modern" I refer to a higher level of polish and refinement of orchestral performance, of choral precision and balance, and of overall tightness and solidity of conception and execution. These are qualities that seem to require several generations of familiarity with a work in order to achieve but often entail a concomitant spiritual emptiness. That is, a work goes through a period of advocacy, fueled by love and commitment but limited by the ongoing process of mastering interpretive and technical challenges; having survived this period, the work is then canonized and viewed as a known entity—a masterpiece. For some reason—contrary to conventional wisdom—this status contracts, rather than expands, the interpretive focus, turning attention away from meaning and content—the work's essential value—and toward matters of execution that reflect on the performers rather than on the music itself. The result is a plethora of glib, meaningless, and essentially indistinguishable renderings of a work that begins suddenly to appear drab and shallow.

What I have just described is a situation I have witnessed repeatedly. True, it is a generalization, with many exceptions. In the case at hand, are the polish and refinement achieved at the expense of true meaning and persuasive interpretation? Not for the most part.

Hold on, folks. 1 must let you in on the most amazing coincidence. At this point in writing the review, my copy of Fanfare 11:5 arrived. Browsing through it as 1 always do, I was struck— mind-blown might be more accurate—by the opening of a review by Peter Rabinowitz (whom I have never met or spoken to) that appears on p. 158. There he describes virtually the identical phenomenon that 1 have just outlined. What is especially amazing about this coincidence is that his comments are also prefatory to a review of a new Simon Rattle recording, in that case, Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. In reading the rest of his review, I note that Rabinowitz finds Rattle guilty of what he calls "classicization," while I tend to feel that Rattle has done a pretty fair job with Gerontius. However, further considering Rabinowitz's specific points, many of which apply to the Gerontius recording as well, 1 suspect that the differing verdicts derive from the fact that the "Resurrection" Symphony—and Rabinowitz's understanding of it—has benefitted from many performances and recordings of a higher artistic caliber than Gerontius has received. That is, Rattle has tougher competition in the Mahler. There is also the possibility that the reverence and emotional restraint that bother Rabinowitz in Rattle's Mahler is more appropriate to Elgar. ("In the end," Rabinowitz writes, "the piece sounds a little too much like late Elgar.")

In any case, Rattle presents a persuasive rendition of Gerontius. The only serious miscalculation involves the choral passage, "Go forth in the name," toward the end of Part One. Though it is marked molto largamente, Rattle, like Boult, broadens so much that the noble, striding momentum is lost. On the other hand, the many high points of Part Two are quite gloriously framed.

The most compromised element in this new recording is tenor John Mitchinson, whose performance varies throughout, ranging from passages that are uncomfortably strained and labored to moments of impassioned beauty. John Shirley-Quirk is excellent in his two roles, more fluent than 1 have often found him to be. Janet Baker, beatific as the Angel on the Barbirolli recording nearly 25 years ago, is just as exquisite today. In truth, both her interpretation and her rendering of it are surprisingly similar to her earlier performance, which she has described as one of the highpoints of her career. In summary, with but a few reservations, this recording can be recommended as the "modern" Gerontius to own.

-- Walter Simmons, Fanfare
Reviewing EMI 749549

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Works on This Recording

The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 by Sir Edward Elgar
Performer:  Dame Janet Baker (Mezzo Soprano), John Shirley-Quirk (Bass), John Mitchinson (Tenor)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,  City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899-1900; England 
Venue:  Great Hall, Birmingham Univ., England 
Length: 95 Minutes 14 Secs. 
Language: English 
Notes: Great Hall, Birmingham Univ., England (09/06/1986 - 09/08/1986) 
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma" by Sir Edward Elgar
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1898-1899; England 
Venue:  Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England 
Length: 32 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Notes: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England (08/28/1993 - 08/29/1993) 
Grania and Diarmid, Op. 42 by Sir Edward Elgar
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901; England 
Venue:  Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England 
Length: 9 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Notes: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England (08/28/1993 - 08/29/1993) 
Pomp and Circumstance Marches (5), Op. 39: no 4 in G major by Sir Edward Elgar
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1907; England 
Venue:  Philharmonic Hall, Berlin, Germany 
Length: 5 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Notes: Philharmonic Hall, Berlin, Germany (04/14/2002 - 04/15/2002) 

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