DREAM OF GERONTIUS 1900 (Winged Lion Signum)

The sheer importance of this new release of Elgar’s choral masterpiece has perhaps led its producers to go over the top in terms of presentation. This is a surpassingly wonderful account, but it is packaged in a way which some might describe as pretentious.

Okay, this is a period-instrument performance (about which more later) but does that really justify the title “Elgar The Dream of Gerontius 1900”. What next: “Haydn The Creation 1798”; Britten “War Requiem 1962”? The two CDs are slipped into a handsome hardback booklet, illustrated with sylvan scenes which don’t really add any significance (though there is one fascinating shot of the recording in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls), John Henry Newman’s text, full lists of  the choristers and orchestral players, biographies of the soloists, acknowledgements to sponsors and donors, a sermonising preface from Stephen Hough and a stimulating introduction by the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.

More valuably, there is an illuminating discussion of the period instruments of around 1900 which make up Paul McCreesh’s orchestra of Gabrieli Players. detailing their history and provenance – and including Elgar’s own trombone.  Crucially, the strings, largely set up in gut, bring a softer context to the entire proceedings, and this has an impact on the recording level.

Gerontius’ deathbed scene is evoked in a reverent hush, though it does take the ear some time to adjust to this low volume. One bonus is the clarity of the harps as McCreesh unfolds the Prelude with a subtle control of shape and dynamics, and an awareness of wind colours throughout the whole performance.

Nicky Spence, recording his first Gerontius (I reviewed the tenor’s first performance of the role at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 2022), brings a huge amount of emotional intelligence, in character  as a frightened, vulnerable man facing death, phrasing with a continuous beauty of tone and meticulous diction.

The choristers (McCreesh’s own Gabrieli Consort, plus Gabrieli Roar – young singers from an ambitious choral training programme singing alongside experienced professionals – and the Polish National Youth Choir)  bring equal clarity and involvement, heard initially in the “Kyrie” semi-chorus delivered without the disasters of the 1900 Birmingham premiere  (no ‘period’ recreation here, then!).

Spence’s “Sanctus fortis” is lapel-grabbing, the dying man desperately reciting his belief in Catholic doctrine, rising above his physical weakness to deliver his final prayer. This is touching and moving, unlike some renditions I have heard, stentorian enough to rival Siegfried’s Forging Song, and the combination of the chorus’ “Rescue him” and Gerontius’ despair  is appropriately operatic.

As Gerontius dies, the Priest sends him on his way,  Andrew Foster-Williams’ the warm, comforting bass-baritone, joined by the strong chorus, confident in the redemption of Gerontius’ soul.

McCreesh evokes an otherworldly calm for the opening of Part Two, the afterlife into which Gerontius has passed, and where he now meets his guardian Angel. Anna Stephany young-sounding as an Angel should be – Angels are ageless, after all. There is huge, caring empathy from her as she and the Soul engage in conscious communion, and after an almost hysterical Demons’ Chorus she reassures Gerontius in a barely concealed sense of panic.

The young choral voices sound wonderfully fresh as “Praise to the Holiest” is gradually introduced, and when the full hymn erupts choral diction is amazingly clear, and delivered with a perspicacious clarity of line.

After this the atmosphere changes to one of calm, measured inevitability, Stephany conveying this with quiet conviction, before Foster-Williams reappears, this time as a genuinely compassionate, beseeching Angel of the Agony (the world of Parsifal comes very close here).

Spence’s timorous “I go before my judge” leads to a glimpse of God shattering in this reading (to think Elgar ducked at the prospect of conveying it until bullied by his publisher), after which he is now strengthened in “Take me away”, now knowing his salvation awaits him after the lone night-watches. Stephany’s Angel’s Farewell brings a soothing closure, choristers hymning quietly in the background as this wonderful, humane performance draws to its end.

Christopher Morley

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