ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius
It is only fitting that the Hallé should be the source of the only recording of Gerontius in recent times to challenge, even shake, the supremacy of Barbirolli. For all sorts of reasons his famous account has lived in everyone’s hearts for decades. It still will, because there is something about the immediacy and wholeheartedness of its vision that speaks as directly as ever. Mark Elder’s approach is more elusive. He draws us patiently, unerringly, into the profound mystery of the piece, judiciously weighing its theatricality against its inwardness. It is reverent in the best sense, with breathless pianissimi and a potency of atmosphere that takes hold from the moment we enter the dying man’s room. Just listen to the Hallé strings in the Prelude, or the introduction to Part 2. The stylistic finesse of the playing, the very particular articulation, the inbred portamento – all these qualities are testament to the fantastic work Elder has done with the orchestra.
It is, by a mile, the best-sounding Gerontius we have had, handsome in its depth and breadth with great spatial perspectives and a wonderful sense of how the score is layered. Onto this impressive sound stage comes Paul Groves’s Gerontius with a near-perfect blend of poetic restraint and high emotionalism – though some may feel that the “operatic” hot-spots, “Take me away!” being, of course, the hottest of them – are wanting in that last degree of heft. I did feel, too, that Elder and his sound team might have given us something more startling with that chord of “utmost force” in the moment Gerontius finally glimpses his creator.
No lack of force or presence in Bryn Terfel’s proclamation to “Go forth!” – the portals of heaven open to that, as indeed they do with the arrival of the heavenly host for the great “Praise to the Holiest” chorus. The Hallé choir bravely gather momentum in that, thanks to Elder’s insistence on clear rhythmic articulation, and he achieves a simply stonking crescendo on the final chord, leaving the organ to plumb infinite depths.
Of course, Janet Baker’s timbre still haunts every measure of the Angel’s music, but the wonderful Alice Coote conveys great confidentiality in her highly personalised reading. “Softly and gently” is gloriously enveloping – and maybe that’s the word which ultimately best describes this fine and most satisfying recording.