ELGAR Sea Pictures. Dream of Gerontius
This is unquestionably the strongest Gerontius to have come my way since Sir Mark Elder’s Gramophone Award-winning Hallé account (1/09). A superbly paced and lovingly shaped Prelude immediately proclaims Sir Andrew Davis’s formidable credentials in this repertoire; indeed, his patient and scrupulously observant conception of the whole work evinces a selfless authority, wisdom and instinctive ebb and flow, and he certainly secures a splendidly disciplined and consistently fervent response from his massed BBC Symphony forces. Just occasionally I find myself craving a touch greater thrust – I personally prefer ‘Sanctus fortis’ to move on a fraction more than it does here, and perhaps the last ounce of exhilaration and edge-of-seat danger is missing from the Presto marking at fig 43 onwards (disc 2, tr 7) in the Demons’ chorus – but these tiny quibbles pale into insignificance when set beside the ineluctable sweep and glowing dedication of Davis’s reading in its entirety.
As for the vocal team, Stuart Skelton’s stamina, dramatic range and ringing, Vickers-like tone are a tremendous asset. He may not yet be a match for Heddle Nash on Sir Malcolm Sargent’s pioneering 1945 set (still the touchstone all these decades later), but he brings exactly the right awe-struck hush to ‘Novissima hora est’ and really shines in the oratorio’s later stages. David Soar, too, sings with lofty projection and unstinting eloquence (his Angel of the Agony is an especially pleasing achievement). Arguably best of all, though, is Sarah Connolly, who brings a deeply affecting radiance, sense of wonder and intelligence to everything she does.
Disc 2 also contains a majestic performance of the Gerontius Prelude with its concert ending, while the main offering is preceded by a wholly sympathetic rendering of Sea Pictures, which (once again) finds Connolly in glorious voice. Davis and the BBC SO play their full part in a performance to rival such distinguished forebears as the Baker/Barbirolli (EMI), Greevy/Handley (CfP) and, yes, Connolly’s own conspicuously fresh and rewarding interpretation with Simon Wright and the Bournemouth SO (Naxos, 12/06). Chandos’s thrillingly tangible SACD sound packs an almighty punch in terms of lustre, amplitude and range (Croydon’s Fairfield Hall was the helpful venue). Dare we look forward to The Kingdom and The Apostles from this same source?