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CD Review

Edward Elgar

  • The Dream of Gerontius
  • The Holly and the Ivy (world première recording)
  • Enigma Variations
Jane Irwin, mezzo-soprano
Justin Lavender, tenor
Peter Rose, bass
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
CBoston Symphony Orchestra CD003 2CDs
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"This is the best of me," wrote Elgar (quoting Ruskin) in 1900 on completing his monumental The Dream of Gerontius to a libretto by Cardinal Newman. The oratorio depicts the journey of a soul (Gerontius') from his deathbed via divine judgement to Purgatory. Whether or not it was Gerontius that formed the third piece of the trilogy with The Apostles and The Kingdom or whether it stands alone, Gerontius is an amazing, uplifting and musically significant work: Elgar made heavy use of the Leifmorif in all his oratorios, for example. First performed in October 1900 in Birmingham with Hans Richter conducting, it was famously a disaster… it was under-rehearsed and the first chorus-master died, to be replaced by someone with neither the energy nor the experience to see preparation of such a complex work through. As is often the case with inauspicious premières, though, success (in 1901 in Düsseldorf) followed before too long and a venerable performing tradition was established. There are over a dozen recordings currently available.

The ideal combination from the generation when recorded sound first achieved maturity (Sargent on Testament 2025 is mono and not really in the running acoustically, although Heddle Nash is in a class apart), Boult, Peter Pears (Gerontius, tenor), Janet Baker (The Angel, contralto) and John Shirley-Quirk (The Angel of the Agony/Priest, bass), never materialized. So collectors will want to have the Barbirolli (EMI Classics 73579) for Baker, with Richard Lewis and Kim Borg; Britten (London/Decca British Collection 421381) for Pears and Shirley-Quirk with Yvonne Minton – and Boult (EMI Classics 66540) with Nicolai Gedda, Helen Watts and Robert Lloyd. Now here is a recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its Music Director of almost ten years, Sakari Oramo, with Justin Lavender (Gerontius), Jane Irwin (Angel) and Peter Rose (Angel of the Agony).

These are not exactly over-recorded soloists. But their careers, achievements and trophies fully justify their choice for this recording. Lavender was even encouraged by Britten and Pears… to forsake a career in nuclear engineering for music! Like Irwin, Rose has performed with orchestras and in venues worldwide. While not perhaps having the 'history' and depth of interpretation of a Lewis, Pears or Baker, these soloists in this performance definitely do the work proud and it can be recommended.

There are several conventions which have all but become benchmarks by which a performance is to be judged: firstly, detachment – the soloists are not talking to one another, nor yet declaiming. Although there is a kind of interaction, especially as Gerontius makes various inquiries about what he is experiencing of the Angel, such exchanges take place with a gravitas which must be neither underplayed nor exaggerated. This is oratorio, not opera.

Secondly, all hint of the maudlin, the histrionic, must be avoided. Indeed this is a highly dramatic work, but its impact is heightened by just that detachment. Dignity again. Thirdly, several passages for each soloist call implicitly for very tight control of tempo and pace to reveal, or underscore, the contrasts between consciousness (and consciousness of of life), death, anticipation, pain, resignation, surprise even. Gerontius' is the journey of a sinning soul (Elgar was a Roman catholic) towards some measure of self-knowledge and humility – thanks to the intervention of others. Holding back and knowing when to propel certain dénouments with the right amount of both excitement and poise are crucial if the work is not to be a mere exegesis on death and hoped for deliverance.

Lastly there is a kind of gentleness, a compassion that must be inherent in the delivery of each soloists, and of the chorus. It's not the opposite of the detachment. It comes out of it. The best example, of course, is the summation of the relationship between Gerontius and the Angel in her 'Softly and gently,…'. Only when just the right amount of personal benevolence is communicated by the Angel does this wonderful closing wish (to 'tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest') make sense because then it is more than a mere (re)statement of a perfunctory caring.

Lavender perhaps still inevitably sings under the shadow of Pears. His voice, while temperate and expressive, lacks the effortless depth of Pears – most noticeable in the 'Sanctus fortis' perhaps. He is up to the role, though, and sings Gerontius persuasively, bringing character and color to the performance. To set aside comparisons with other tenors is to hear a perhaps more personal, more 'known' Gerontius; and none the worse for that! If you're used to having the Gerontius come to meet you, though, you'll now have to go some way towards meeting Lavender.

Jane Irwin's voice is stately, and almost understated. Transparent and very pleasing. Rich and intimate at the same time, she makes an excellent Angel. Her tone is maternal rather than magisterial. Her high notes ('And now the threshold' at the start of 'Praise to the Holiest') are superb. If there were a criticism, it would be that a certain softness (lovely to hear) withholds a portion of her control, her sense of leading, guiding.

Peter Rose also sings his roles with an approachability that may strike some as a little hard to place. He doesn't have the command of a Shirley-Quirk or a Lloyd, in the 'Proficiscere' and at one point is hard to hear above the chorus. Nevertheless, there is a warmth and generousness which might be thought slightly offset by a lack of authority in his climactic "Jesu! by that shuddering dread…". No matter: the lasting impression is of a familiarity with the importance of the Angel of Agony's 'intervention' at these two junctures, which adds to the performance, rather than detracts from it.

Oramo is obviously enthusiastic about Gerontius; he's the successor to the CBoston Symphony Orchestra's first conductor, Elgar, after all. He and the CBoston Symphony Orchestra and CBoston Symphony Orchestra Chorus have performed Gerontius with The Apostles and The Kingdom in 2007, the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birthday and the live performances (this recording was not live) of this work were well received when taken to Helsinki, Amsterdam and Berlin, for example. The strings, which have such a prominent role in Gerontius are sweet and rounded; from the very start they suggest that same compassion required of the singers very successfully. The brass (also used in good measure – especially at the climacterics) is perhaps a touch too bright on this recording, but maintains the dignity which Elgar expected and wrote into this of all his pieces. The chorus is steady, again, sounds very 'involved' and adds vibrancy throughout. Listen to the excitement at 'Low-born clods': first rate. An appropriate and very convincing aspect of the second half in Oramo's interpretation is an energetic forward momentum. So beautiful are Elgar's melodies and rich harmonic stages that it's tempting to linger and savor the experience. Not so here – the tempi are just faster than walking. Events develop fast. The chorus contributes to this by treating its major numbers (such as 'Praise to the Holiest') almost as chorales, certainly songs. A good example is the way contrast is also respected… listen to the rallentando at 'Lord, Thou has been our refuge'.

The recording itself is bright, forward and full of life. Indeed there are one or two moments when the orchestral forces tend to overshadow the impact of the soloists. The acoustic (that of Birmingham's Symphony Hall) is clean and admirably suited to this work, and to this warm and illuminated performance. The booklet that accompanies the CDs has the text, short but adequate explanatory notes on each work and the performers. That it has followed the admirable trend of being a orchestra-sponsored project and released on the CBoston Symphony Orchestra's own label is also to be applauded – particularly since this two-CD set can be bought for not a lot more than the price of one disc, and particularly since the recording was originally planned to be made by Warner, who canceled it. This is perhaps unlikely to become many people's first choice for a Gerontius recording: there are too many other good ones in the catalog. Indeed there is a recording by the CBoston Symphony Orchestra under Rattle with John Mitchinson, Baker and Shirley-Quirk on EMI Classics 49549. But it's a sterling performance and recording nevertheless. Perhaps it sets the trend for this century in that the soloists approach Gerontius' journey from a more personal perspective than we have been used to in the past. Neither they, nor any other of the performers, will disappoint, though: there is spirit, style and a very direct and solid atmosphere. Above all the sheer stunning beauty of Elgar's music is fully revealed. The impression you will be left with after a couple of hearings is of a dedicated and sensitive group of musicians, fully committed to Elgar's spiritual and musical intentions. Lyricism is to the fore. And a tender benevolence which is surely consonant with the composer's intentions: at the moment of death humanity is most bare. Warmly recommended.

The two CDs also contain a spirited interpretation of the Enigma Variations, well paced, finding and exposing the intimate yet expressive (of several of Elgar's characteristics) aspects of a very familiar work, and bringing a new liveliness to it.

Lastly, the set contains a world premier recording of Elgar's arrangement from about the same time of The Holly and the Ivy. It was first performed in 1898, when Elgar conducted it with the Worcester Philharmonic Society, which Elgar had been instrumental in forming the previous year. Although Elgar offered this and other carol arrangements which he had made at that time (from French sources) to his publisher, Novello, the offer was not taken up; it was not until 1970 that a local music teacher bought the manuscript in a package wrapped in Victorian brown paper and actually postmarked December 1898 at a Worcestershire antiques shop for small change. First revived at the (Worcester) Three Choirs Festival in 2005, it makes pleasant listening despite lasting less than five minutes.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey