Elgar The Dream of Gerontius
It’s somewhat ironic that the most convincing modern interpretation of Gerontius should come to us in video form. This performance, deriving from a TV broadcast celebrating the BBC’s 75th anniversary in November 1997, was caught live at St Paul’s and once again a live occasion gives us a frisson hard, if not impossible, to imitate in the studio. The evening is one of true inspiration under Andrew Davis, the most comprehensively equipped Elgar conductor of our day. Surely drawing his inspiration from Barbirolli, whom he heard as a youth conducting the work, he inspires his combined forces to give as elevated and emotionally convincing an interpretation as one could wish, whether in the agonized, personal struggle of the protagonist or the wonderfully varied contribution of the chorus in its various guises; and that chorus sings its heart out in Elgar’s cause, the notoriously reverberant St Paul’s acoustics actually enhancing the choir’s grand-scale contribution. And we mustn’t overlook the dedicated contribution of the BBC SO, collectively and individually playing with warmth and technical assurance.
Then no audio-only performance, at least since the pioneering EMI set now on Testament (2/94), has such a satisfying team of soloists all round. Langridge, as one might expect, purveys the dying Gerontius’s torment of mind and body with a wonderful sensitivity to Elgar’s apt and illuminating setting of Newman’s words for his tenor, making the most of the text and obeying all Elgar’s dynamic marks (though I wish he had not taken a breath at ‘Take me/away’). Without ever growing over-effusive, Langridge conveys the essence of this rewarding part.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers will be lucky to do anything better than her beautifully sung, sensitively etched account of the Angel’s part, her tone lustrous, her expression as soft-grained and deeply felt as it should be, every word made to tell. Nor has Alastair Miles surpassed his magisterial Priest and Angel of the Agony here, his firm bass on pristine form, his delivery secure and urgent.
Director Bob Coles makes the most of the surroundings to illustrate aspects of the story, and uses fades and changes of perspective to arresting effect. I was a little less happy with the sound reproduction: as so often these days it is too recessed, but it is quite good enough not to mar one’s absorption in this special performance.
The music is preceded by a mini-feature narrated by James Naughtie and including perceptive comment from Davis and the likes of that noted Elgarian, Jerrold Northrop Moore, but one wonders if you will want to see and hear that more than once, though you can always fast-forward to the start of the wondrous performance. In any case this is one video essential to any collection.'