Notes and Editorial Reviews
A remarkable achievement.
Last year, when I surveyed most of the available recordings of The Dream of Gerontius, I expressed the hope that Mark Elder, as he then was, and his Hallé forces might make a commercial recording of the work. That hope was inspired by the remarkable performance that they had given at the 2005 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, which, as I commented at the time, made a great impression on me. Having re-listened to it more than once in the off-air recording I made, I now feel it was, quite simply, the finest live account of the work that I ever expect to hear. And now, with almost identical forces, the newly-knighted Sir Mark Elder has made a studio recording. It comes too late for the 150th
anniversary of Elgar’s birth but instead, and more fittingly, perhaps, it marks the Hallé’s own 150th birthday, which falls this year.
The inevitable question is: has it been worth the wait for this recording? The answer is an unequivocal "yes".
The American tenor, Paul Groves, reprises the role of Gerontius, as I hoped he would. I hadn’t realised it at the time but we learn from the booklet biography that his performance at the 2005 Proms was his debut in the role, which makes his achievement that night all the more remarkable. His greatest virtue of all, it seems to me, is the clarity and ease of his singing. Every note is hit right in the centre and his voice has an exciting and pleasing ring. The top notes are always true and secure. I followed in the score but, frankly, that was superfluous as far as the text is concerned for Groves’ diction is crystal clear – as, indeed, is that of the other soloists and the choirs.
In Part I Elgar sets his tenor a task that is almost impossible. The singer must try to suggest the frailty of a man on his death bed while, at the same time, he must be able to deliver heroic, dramatic passages, such as ‘Sanctus fortis’. Groves is fully equal to the dramatic sections though sometimes he does sound a little too healthy for a dying man. ‘Sanctus fortis’ is a huge test and it’s one that Groves passes with flying colours. He starts it in ringing, forthright voice but later on, just before cue 48 in the vocal score, he shades off the end of the phrase "Parce mihi, Domine" with great sensitivity. In this aria, and frequently during the performance as a whole, he demonstrates prodigious breath control. One example occurs in ‘Sanctus fortis’, where the whole eight-bar phrase, "For the love of Him alone, Holy Church as his creation" is taken in one span, where most tenors take a breath, quite legitimately, after the comma. Later, the first phrase of ‘Take me away’ is one glorious, seamless whole, as it should be but often isn’t. Returning to ‘Sanctus fortis’, there’s a lovely piangendo at cue 53, when the words "Sanctus fortis" are repeated gently by Gerontius, and then the phrase "O Jesu, help" is truly anguished. Groves’ delivery of the climatic "In Thine own agony", top B flat and all, is magnificent. In all, his performance of this testing keynote aria is very fine.
Part II brings different demands for the tenor soloist. Now he represents the soul of the dead Gerontius. Quite a bit of the music in Part I required the vocal resources of a heldentenor but the opening pages of Part II needs the subtlety of a lieder singer. I’m not sure that Groves is quite successful in these passages. The clear, pleasing singing remains a constant feature but he doesn’t seem to delve as deeply into the words as do some of his distinguished predecessors in the role. As an example, I compared the first solo – "I went to sleep" - as sung on disc by John Mitchinson (for Rattle) and by Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Vernon Handley). Both are so much more responsive to the words and both also sing more quietly. Groves can’t quite match those experienced masters of the role. But he brings his own insights and subtleties to the part and his dialogue with the Angel is intelligently and sensitively sung. Inspired, no doubt, by the presence of an audience, he was a touch more spontaneous at times in the live Proms performance. On the other hand, on that occasion he had to project into a huge acoustic. Here, recording under studio conditions, he can offer a more subtly nuanced reading. The last section of the role, the aria ‘Take me away’, is another hugely demanding solo. Groves’ opening is superb. Later on, perhaps, a little more dynamic contrast would have been welcome but his fervour – not overdone - firm tone and excellent breath control offer ample compensation and the final phrase – "there let me be" – is most affecting.
Alice Coote, who was the Angel in the Proms performance, once again takes the role for the recording. Like Paul Groves she offers much but I found it interesting to compare this performance with her live account. To my ears her voice has a slight edge to it at times in this present performance and her tone doesn’t have quite the same degree of warmth and fullness that she exhibited at the Proms. That said, she is right inside the role, she sings with feeling and commitment and her performance gives a great deal of pleasure. I like, for example, the inflection she brings to the words, "this child of clay". A little later on, she has the right amount of legato and warmth for "A presage falls upon thee." That wonderful passage "There was a mortal" is done with appropriate inwardness – I think she does this passage even better here than in the Proms performance. Her account of the celebrated Farewell is lovely. She brings compassion and dignity to this solo and sends the Soul of Gerontius on his way in a most reassuring way.
There is one change to the line up of soloists that took part in the Prom performance and it’s a significant one. In place of Matthew Best, who sang in 2005, Bryn Terfel sings the two bass solos. This is luxury casting indeed. Terfel is a magisterial Priest. His opening phrases are delivered with all the power and sonority that one would expect from this singer. However, I was delighted to note how, as the aria unfolds, he’s attentive to Elgar’s dynamic markings, which are often quiet, and by so doing he makes the Priest’s words properly prayerful. He’s an imposing Angel of The Agony, singing this dramatic solo quite splendidly. One relishes the sheer amplitude of his voice but, once again, one notes how attentive he is to the dynamic markings – and it makes such a difference. Often I’ve found that a soloist is more suited to one of these two solos than the other but on this occasion Terfel is completely successful in both.
At the Proms performance the Hallé Youth Choir, a mixed-voice choir whose members are aged between twelve and nineteen years, sang the crucial semi chorus parts. Their contribution was important then and I’m delighted to find them similarly involved this time. The involvement of these young singers, for whom this recording must have been a tremendous experience, gives this performance an edge over most of its CD rivals. Benjamin Britten scored a significant coup by using the choir of King’s College, Cambridge as the semi chorus when he recorded Gerontius in 1971 and I wonder if Sir Mark Elder had that precedent in mind. The use of young voices, with their completely different timbre, results in a sharp and very telling contrast and I find the effect is really exciting and atmospheric. The writing for the semi chorus is often extremely exposed but the young Hallé singers rise to the challenge superbly and their fresh, youthful voices add an additional and very welcome dimension to the choral sound. I think their involvement is a major success and I applaud it unreservedly.
Their adult colleagues in the main Hallé Choir are also on top form. They’ve obviously been prepared superbly by their chorus master, James Burton. So, every strand is clear in "Be merciful" and they bring real bite and urgency to "Rescue him." In the Demons’ Chorus their singing is virile and has excellent definition. Perhaps they could have snarled a bit more but it’s an exciting account of the chorus. Equally fine is ‘Praise to the Holiest’ and, towards the end, they are clear, controlled and atmospheric at "Lord, Thou hast been our refuge", never an easy passage to bring off.
The orchestral contribution is, if anything, even finer. From the very start of the Prelude to Part I you sense we’re in for something a bit special. The playing glows here and elsewhere. Dynamics are beautifully observed, the rhythms are well articulated and there’s a consistent feeling that the players are right inside the idiom and playing with belief. Two things are worthy of special comment. Firstly, the engineers have contrived to balance the organ beautifully so that whenever it plays it enriches the textures without being unduly prominent. Secondly, the harp part is hugely important and once again, the instrument is balanced perfectly so that time and again one is aware of its importance yet it never draws unwarranted attention to itself.
But for all the splendour of these contributions the whole is knitted into something much greater than the sum of its parts by Sir Mark Elder. Writing of his Prom performance I suggested that one or two of his tempi were a fraction too fleet. I have no such feelings here. I cannot recall a single bar in the whole score when I felt that the pacing wasn’t just right. Elder has demonstrated in several previous Elgar recordings and performances that he is a master interpreter of this composer. This superb interpretation confirms that judgement in spades. His shaping of the Prelude is masterly and that sets the tone for the whole performance. He is scrupulous in his observance of Elgar’s markings and in many ways that’s the key to success in Elgar performance for the composer was copious in the indications he gave in the score and if a conductor trusts Elgar and follows the markings that’s more than half the battle.
The performance has huge sweep and conviction but there are also many small points that show Elder’s meticulous and perceptive attention to detail. One example comes in the Prelude a couple of bars before cue 17 when the orchestra plays a quiet, stabbing chord, with the gong adding a frisson. Elder places and balances that chord to perfection. Move on to the short, hushed Prelude to Part II, for the strings alone. Elder obtains miraculous, luminous textures from his players and in a mere twenty-six bars he establishes an otherworldly atmosphere, just as Elgar intended. Best of all, at cue 3 the dynamic marking is an incredible pppp. Elder achieves precisely that and the effect is superb. Only one other conductor in my experience has matched this, namely Simon Rattle in his 1986 EMI recording, but to be honest, I think even Rattle is put in the shade at this point. These are very small points in themselves but they catch the ear and show the scrupulous attention to detail that has gone into the preparation of this performance.
Elder, however, is anything but a micro-manager. He is magnificent in the big moments. The end of Part I, after the chorus has joined the bass soloist at "Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels", is brought off expertly. Every strand of Elgar’s many-layered tableau is given its proper weight and the whole passage causes the eyes – or my eyes, at any rate – to prickle, as it should. Even better is the long build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’. This long passage, after the Angel’s solo "There was a mortal" is challenging, but Elder’s direction is superbly assured. Once again, all the various strands - semi chorus, chorus, orchestra and two soloists - are knitted together perfectly. One thing I admired particularly is the way in which Elder paces the several short sections marked Poco più animato with a vernal eagerness and then observes the decelerations, marked by Elgar, to perfection. Here the ladies of the chorus and the younger ladies in the semi chorus sing with a wide-eyed freshness that is completely appropriate to Angelicals. The whole passage is an unqualified success and Elder builds the tension and the atmosphere so that when the choir erupts at "Praise to the Holiest" it is as if great gold doors have been thrown open to reveal blinding light. Elder handles the ensuing chorus masterfully. The last pages, from cue 94 onwards, are tremendously exciting without recourse to excessive speed as Sakari Oramo does on his CBSO recording (see review). The end of the chorus bids fair to lift the roof off the Bridgewater Hall yet Elder’s forces have more to give and manage to observe the crescendo on the last, long chord. It’s a thrilling moment.
One more example of Elder’s perceptive command of the score and of his forces will suffice. In Part II, starting at cue 114, is the remarkable passage where Gerontius sings, "I go before my Judge", followed by the choir’s muffled entreaties, "Be merciful". Elder distils the most incredible atmosphere in these bars. The music has an awestruck quality that I’ve never heard brought out so well. It sounds as if everyone – Paul Groves, the choirs, the orchestra – is on tenterhooks, scarcely daring to articulate the notes. It’s the most remarkable piece of music making imaginable.
So how can I sum up this recording? I think it’s a remarkable achievement and I have been greatly moved by hearing it. Paul Groves and Alice Coote both deliver very fine performances. I feel that both gave a little more in terms of spontaneity during the Proms performance, inspired by the presence of an audience. On the other hand, under studio conditions they achieve some subtle points that were not possible in the huge arena that is the Royal Albert Hall. Bryn Terfel is a superb addition to the cast. The choirs and orchestra are on inspired form and Sir Mark Elder confirms that he is the finest Elgar interpreter now before the public. Under his inspired leadership the white-hot inspiration of Elgar’s visionary score comes alive.
The performance is captured in excellent, atmospheric sound. The recording doesn’t quite have the punch and presence of the Oramo recording but it’s not far short in terms of immediacy. The forces are splendidly and truthfully balanced and the whole project is a great success for the engineers. The notes are by Michael Kennedy and up to that fine writer’s usual immaculate standard.
It has been well worth the wait for this recording. For over forty years Sir John Barbirolli’s great 1964 recording of Gerontius has dominated the catalogue. I’m sure he would rejoice that, in their 150th anniversary year, his beloved Hallé and their distinguished current Music Director have produced a worthy successor and one that offers irrefutable proof that the Elgar tradition of the Hallé is being maintained in the twenty-first century. Let us hope that Sir Mark will go on to give us new and equally fine recordings of Apostles and Kingdom but even if that doesn’t happen they have done Elgar proud with this distinguished recording which I have found to be a very moving experience.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 by Sir Edward Elgar
Written: 1899-1900; England
Length: 90 Minutes 21 Secs.
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