- Sea Pictures, song cycle for alto & orchestra (or piano), Op. 37
- The Dream of Gerontius, oratorio for soloists, chorus & orchestra, Op. 38
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Sea Picturesby Andrew Davis
Edward Elgar's giant cantata (the composer rejected the term oratorio) "The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38," which appeared in 1900, has always been a popular work among British choirs and traditionally minded audiences. Outside of Britain its heavy Cardinal Newman tale of a soul going through divine judgment, redolent of Catholic theological detail (even British Anglicans demanded revisions), and massive orchestration have proven less appealing. Yet the work hangs on, for there's a certain fascination in seeing how wholeheartedly Elgar accepted the influence of Wagner, especially that of "Parsifal." This is as Germanic as British music gets. What's required to bring it off is strong soloists on one hand and a conductor who keeps it all from slipping into murk on the other. This handsome Chandos release succeeds on both counts, with a very strong Wagnerian tenor, Stuart Skelton, in the role of Gerontius, a uniformly good supporting cast, and classically clear work in the choruses from the BBC Symphony Chorus. The text is included, but listeners could get away without using it in many sections. The Angel, contralto Sarah Connolly, is again a pure Wagnerian, and introducing the program with the five "Sea Pictures, Op. 37," is a bonus here, as is the engineering work of Chandos in the relatively uncommon (except to pro wrestling devotees) venue of Fairfield Halls, Croydon. Recommended if "The Dream of Gerontius" rings your bell.
- Release Date:
Performance CreditsAndrew Davis Primary Artist
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The opening orchestral prelude of Gerontius is revelatory from several standpoints. Within its terse duration it contains the elements of nearly all the major thematic material which is to follow. With deceptively uncomplicated means it sets up the fervent tone of a work which could arguably be the composer’s most profound. Its extended melodic and harmonic vocabulary signals a departure for Elgar. It’s a mere 2 years removed from the composer’s breakout masterpiece, Enigma Variations, yet sounds a world apart. The ensuing 84 minutes are a vivid demonstration of the composer’s mastery at wedding music and text. Elgar bristled at the appellation, oratorio, insisting the work was more music drama. Regardless of the nomenclature, it’s a towering achievement completely deserving of its reputation. The score calls for a large instrumental contingent as well as 3 soloists, chorus and organ. It’s impossible to withstand its allure regardless of how one perceives its spiritual underpinning. Such is the power of Elgar’s writing. What of this new version? It’s beautifully performed by the soloists, chorus and orchestra. Sir Andrew’s firm grasp of the music’s complex mystical arc is evident throughout. The field is crowded with fine versions including one conducted by the sorely missed Richard Hickox also on Chandos. Nonetheless, this new entry easily takes its place among the top available recordings. The Sea Pictures makes an excellent coupling and is nicely sung by the superb Sarah Connolly in this, her second traversal. The Chandos engineering is luminous, detailed and three dimensional especially in the Super Audio format. Soloists, chorus and orchestra are realistically arrayed. Lavish packaging and superb liner notes complete the package, solidifying its irresistability even to those already in possession of a rival set.
Amazing heartfelt performance of these two marvelous Elgar works! This disc consists of two wonderful works from Elgar, “Sea Pictures” which is a 5 movement series of poems set to music (but far more than just tone poems), richly voiced by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly), and The Dream of Gerontius which comprises the remainder of the first CD and all of the second CD. It is obvious that Sir Andrew Davis cares very much about the subtle nuances of the musical material, and his work leading the always outstanding BBC Symphony Orchestra is truly top-notch here, providing a sensitive and full-range dynamic texture for the soloists and choir to launch from in an all too rare mutually reinforcing partnership with the orchestra. With respect to “Sea Pictures”, the sweeping feeling of the strings in the “Sea Slumber Song” (track 1) and the “Sabbath Morning at Sea” (track 3) provide a welcome breathing feeling to the musical material, while at the same time drawing the listener in. And “The Swimmer” (track 5) is just gorgeous and Ms. Connolly’s soaring melodic voice is a beautiful fit. The remainder of the first CD and all of the second CD are devoted to “The Dream of Gerontius”, which is firmly based in Catholic doctrine and begins by introducing the various themes to be used at key moments throughout the piece. The extremely well written liner notes discuss Elgar’s Catholic background and the fact that it was not particularly popular at the time, which provides particularly valuable insight into some of the introductory material of the piece as well as the strength of will and belief reflected in various ways throughout the work. Personally, I found it difficult to focus on the English spoken words in the libretto because the music and musicality of tenor Stuart Skelton and bass David Soar (what an incredible voice this man has!) provided such a rich sonic tapestry. However, the extremely well written liner notes booklet includes the complete libretto, so following along is not only doable but encouraged as it adds depth and meaning to the listening experience. Track 17 on CD 2 (“Take me away”) where Gerontius is cast into purgatory, is particularly gripping given the context of the liner notes. But when all is said and done, this performance is gorgeous, evocative, emotional, gripping, beautiful, and satisfying. I have no doubt that this performance would have been a lifelong remembered treat if experienced in person. Sir Andrew Davis delivers on this recording (big surprise – when doesn’t he?) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra shows that they deserve their outstanding reputation. The soloists are remarkable, and the combination of all three plus these two magnificent works results in a 2 CD set that is absolutely worth acquiring. This is a five star recording, and I highly and sincerely recommend it. It is glorious!
A poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman was Elgar's inspiration for his choral work "The Dream of Gerontius," which he completed in 1900. This work is an oddity in that it is religious although Newman's poem itself is not biblical. The poem depicts the journey of a pious man's soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. The work falls firmly outside the established genres of both the oratorio and the cantata. Elgar disliked use of the term "oratorio" to classify it, although it is frequently referred to as one. The piece is widely deemed to be one of Elgar's finest, and some consider it to be his masterpiece. Elgar realized that this work was something very special. He wrote to a friend: "You will find Gerontius far beyond anything I've yet done … I have written my own heart's blood into the score. This is the best of me." It was poorly performed at its premiere, and the Roman Catholic dogma in Newman's poem caused difficulties in connection with later performances in Anglican cathedrals. The text was subsequently revised for some performances. This 2-CD set also contains Elgar's "Sea Pictures," a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. The combination of soloists, chorus, and orchestra on this recording under the expert guidance of conductor Sir Andrew Davis resulted in excellent interpretations of both works. The recording quality sounds first class on my stereo system. I am surprised that Chandos elected to issue yet another recording of "Gerontius," however, because the competition is substantial. Buyers are confronted with questions they only they can answer: who is my favo(u)rite mezzo-soprano? Are other works included on the recording, and if so what are they? This may be the deciding factor for many. Other excellent 2-CD versions of "Gerontius" include those with mezzo-sopranos Felicity Palmer (plus Parry: "Blest Pair of Sirens"; "I was Glad"), Alice Coote (no filler), Anne Sofie von Otter (no filler), Helen Watts (plus Elgar: "The Music Makers" with Dame Janet Baker), Yvonne Minton (plus Delius: "Sea Drift"; Holst: "The Hymn of Jesus"), and Dame Janet Baker (two choices: (a) plus Elgar: "Enigma" Variations; "Grania and Diarmid"; "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4" or (b) no filler). Since buyers now have so many excellent choices available, I honestly cannot recommend any one version over the others. My recommendation is: unless a version includes performances by your favo(u)rite singers, pick one that offers you fillers that you don’t already have. Ted Wilks