The Holly and the Ivy
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)
Justin Lavender (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 27, 29 & 30 August and 1 September 2006 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: August 2007
CD No: CBSO CD003 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 3 minutes
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has joined the ranks of orchestras issuing its own recordings. Originally a victim of the decision by Warner Classics to pull the plug on new projects, this Elgar release now becomes an entirely in-house production.
And it adds to the catalogue of Elgar works on record with the opening item – the world premiere recording of “The Holly and the Ivy” in a choral and orchestral arrangement Elgar produced in 1898. It received one performance, but when Elgar failed to interest his publisher, Novello, in issuing it, it disappeared. It eventually turned up in a Worcestershire antiques shop, among a bundle of other music, in 1970, but was not performed again until the 2005 Three Choirs Festival, in Worcester. The tune is not the familiar one, but an old French melody, and Elgar surrounds it with some typically inventive orchestral writing, sustaining interest through the seven verses. It’s a real charmer, and should be on every Carol Concert-planner’s wish-list.
The account of Enigma Variations that follows both relishes Elgar’s orchestral brilliance and looks deeply into the more intimate moments. The dove-tailing instrumental parts flowing seamlessly in and out of each other mark the tenderness of ‘C.A.E’, while ‘R.B.T’ has a real suggestion of amiable quirkiness and the brisk tempo set for ‘W.M.B’ suggest waspishness in his character. ‘Troyte’ has real humour, ‘Nimrod’ is full of affectionate warmth, ‘Dorabella’ has delicacy but also wistfulness, and the aching emptiness at the heart of Variation XIII (the one designated by three asterisks) is realised with restraint and dignity, after which, Oramo and the CBSO make a joyful (and organ-buttressed) celebration of ‘E.D.U’. Only a moment of uncomfortable tuning from the piccolo towards the end of ‘W.N’ mars this outstanding performance.
“The Dream of Gerontius” starts with a grippingly urgent account of the ‘Prelude’. The hushed first entry of the semi-chorus is magical. Indeed, the choral singing throughout is a particular glory of this recording. It includes one of the most exciting accounts of the ‘Demon’s Chorus’ I have heard, in which the fugue at “Dispossessed, aside thrust” is not the scramble it can sometimes become, in spite of Oramo’s brisk tempo (more on which later).As Gerontius himself, Justin Lavender’s great asset is his clear diction and tone. He rises to the heroic moments but, In Part One at least, he tends to miss some of the role’s intimacy – “Novissima hora est” is just a shade matter-of-fact. He is better at finding the music’s inwardness in Part Two.
Jane Irwin is a warmly sympathetic Angel and produces some beautifully soft singing, particularly in the ‘Farewell’ section. Her dialogues with Gerontius sound like genuine conversations, and not just two oratorio singers who happen to be sharing the same space. Peter Rose’s vocal timbre, dark without sounding lugubrious, lends authority to the role of the Priest and a-not inappropriate human warmth to the Angel of the Agony.
Above all it is Sakari Oramo’s conducting that, with one exception, makes this recording. His keen ear for textures and sonorities ensures that, for example, the crossing violin lines in the introduction to Part Two emerge more clearly than I can recall hearing before. Yet it never sounds clinical – there is warmth as well as transparency in the sound. He also shows just how much expressive power can be unleashed simply by taking Elgar’s tempo markings on trust – his pacing of the score is occasionally unorthodox, but nearly always convincing.
The exception occurs in the great ‘Praise to the Holiest’ chorus. As we approach it Oramo and his forces build the mounting excitement superbly, and the great moment, when it arrives, is thrilling. The second section (“O loving wisdom of our God”) sets off at a real Allegro molto, as marked in the score, but Oramo seems to get the bit between his teeth rather too much, and the rhythms take on a jog-trot quality which is, I imagine, the opposite of what was intended, and which a slightly steadier tempo would have evened out. It’s the one serious blemish on an otherwise superbly realised interpretation.
The recording – warm, lively and spacious, handling intricate detail and the big, sonorous set-pieces equally well – matches this dramatic, passionate performance perfectly.
Sakari and his CBSO forces have also been performing “The Apostles” and “The Kingdom” this year. I’m not holding my breath, but it will be interesting to see if anything emerges.