Dream of Gerontius (Hybr) Hybrid SACD, SACD, Import
Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was thought by many to be outlandishly modern at the time of its completion in 1900. Telling the story of the journey of a dying man's soul into the afterlife, the subject originally caused uproar within the English church yet is now acclaimed as one of the great choral masterpieces and one of Elgar's most popular works.
Yet it has only been recently, with Davis forging a full-time status with the London Symphony Orchestra after a long hiatus with foreign orchestras, that he has taken on the music of his country's arguably greatest composer. And it's only this year that the LSO has released his take on Elgar's also arguably greatest single work, The Dream of Gerontius.
Always a dramatically-inclined conductor, Davis has stayed true to form with this release, recorded live in late 2005 at the London Barbican. Present from the overture's climactic fortissimo passage, with thunderous drums beats enhanced by the SACD format, what we get is a good distance from the gentler, more spiritually-oriented interpretation favored by Boult (who was present when Elgar himself conducted the work) and to some extent Rattle. The LSO orchestra takes to this interpretation with verve, especially vibrant in the numerous climaxes and 'nobilimente' passages favored by Elgar, all aided by the clarity and range of the Super Audio recording process which presents a diaphanous surge of depth and clarity against the often turgid wall resulting from normal CD recording techniques. While, again, those who prefer a perhaps more thoughtful interpretation of Gerontius in keeping with Elgar's strong religiosity may be disappointed here, those whose Elgar resonates foremost with the majestic side of his nature in his Pomps and Circumstances Marches and his Enigma and two symphonic finales, will find here much to celebrate.
The LSO Choir is more than up to Davis's choice, especially in the thumping and shuddering climaxes of the work's 'Demons' sections. Davis is also ably seconded by bass Alistair Miles as Priest and Angel of the Agony, rendering especially in the magnificent 'Go forth upon thy journey' segment ending the first part of the work a fervent and straight-forward portrayal topped only by the added sensitivity of Robert Lloyd's version in Boult's rendition. Even tenor David Rendall, though with a voice rather heavily marred to my mind by an excess vibrato, manages to convey Gerontius himself also with a straight-forward honesty, the too strong beat in his presentation even oddly fitting into his character's existence as first an old man on his death bed and then a soul on its climactic way to its awesome judgment before its God. If I was unfortunately unable to give Davis's interpretation a full 5 stars for its superior combination of drama and sound quality, it was sadly due to the final performer in the trio of soloists Elgar calls for in his work: the mezzo-soprano role of the Angel in this case sung by Anne Sofie von Otter. Granted for those familiar with Gerontius at least in the recording era, the role will almost always be identified with the quintessential performance of Dame Janet Baker for Barbirolli (and later, a bit more subdued, for Rattle), still there is ample room for strong presentations by others in this role which so crucially is called upon to end the entire work with the shimmering and plaintive 'Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul' set piece. Yet Otter throughout her appearance in Gerontius's Second Part is almost totally unequal to the task, also presenting an unfortunate vibrato and coupling it with a maddening and breathless inability to complete a phrase, let alone sustain any sort of fortissimo. For someone raised with Baker, Otter's performance is perhaps a frustratingly double disappointment when matched especially against the frequent glories of Davis's conducting and the LSO's vibrant and pellucid sound.
Still, all in all a highly recommended release especially in its SACD version, though for me at least it can never quite match the sweet passion of Boult or the Baker-dominated Barbirolli versions of 30 to 40 years ago (could not someone treat us and posterity with SACD versions of these two magnificent interpretations in the near future?)