The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Gerontius – Paul Groves
Priest / Angel of the Agony – Bryn Terfel
Angel – Alice Coote
Hallé Youth Choir
Sir Mark Elder
Recorded 15-19 July 2008 in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: December 2008
CD No: HALLÉ
CD HLD 7520 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 34 minutes
Although perhaps best known for his opera interpretations, Sir Mark Elder has long been a distinguished champion of Elgar’s music and it is welcome that he and the Hallé have recorded “The Dream of Gerontius” (setting a poem by Cardinal Newman), this particular work having more than a touch of the operatic about it.
The many recordings of this work either tend towards the devotional or the theatrical and, curiously perhaps, Elder steers his forces through more of a middle path in that respect. The acoustic is spacious and the recording is admirably clear; thus the composer’s complex string writing sounds very fine, the mingling of their fluid parts fully registering. Elder does not over-indulge Elgar’s most mellow and romantic moments preferring to sustain the momentum and thus tension. The big climaxes such as the big choral blast after the Priest’s “Proficiscere”, and most especially the shattering chord when Gerontius momentarily sees his God are perfectly judged. The orchestral and choral waves of “Praise to the Holiest” have a propulsive quality hard to resist.
In the title part Paul Groves proves an excellent and rather forthright Gerontius. His tone is supple and attractive and he has the necessary power for the climaxes. His diction is also excellent. This Gerontius seems more of a young and impetuous man in his final moments of life. The “Sanctus, Fortis” episode is a powerful affirmation of faith and belief. In Part Two Groves captures the stillness and wonderment of Gerontius’s soul well. “Take me away” is touched with an affecting tinge of despair mixed in with the hope.
Alice Coote sings The Angel. She eschews fruity-toned operatic declamation and presents us instead with an ageless, mellow and wise being there to guide Gerontius gently on his journey. Her warm and individual tone delights the ear and the occasional ventures way above the top of the stave seem to hold no terrors for her. The simplicity with which she inflects the text is most affecting and memorable, and puts her into the top rank of interpreters of the part.
Bryn Terfel sounds rather more at ease as the Angel of the Agony than he does as the Priest officiating at Gerontius’s deathbed. Indeed, at this earlier passage his voice does not sound as resonant and focussed as usual, and careful listening reveals a disturbing beat to the tone. It may be that the tessitura of the part is not absolutely right for him – it is usually better with a inky-black bass sound rather than a lighter-voiced bass-baritone.
The choruses make vivid contributions, although these singers seem happier as angels and supporters of Gerontius. They make less of the lusty demons than one might have hoped – here surely is the moment for letting rip.
A fine performance, overall, and one to return to for the contributions of Coote and Groves in particular.