The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
David Rendall (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded on 11 & 13 December 2005 in the Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: LSO LIVE
LSO0083 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 33 minutes
The popular 1930s’ broadcaster on music Sir Henry Walford Davies once advised listeners to an impending broadcast of “The Dream of Gerontius” to pay more attention to the orchestra than the voices. They would certainly have found plenty to engage their interest in this recording, taken from live performances at London’s Barbican Hall. All sorts of previously unnoticed orchestral details emerge without being unduly spot-lit, and Sir Colin Davis has an alert ear for Elgar’s motivic structure. He responds readily to Elgar’s marked tempo fluctuations – a bit too readily to maintain ideal momentum at times – and adds a few of his own. He also makes his own audible contribution occasionally.
It’s a performance that works best in the withdrawn, inward passages. The more obviously theatrical sections are less successful. The ‘Demons’ Chorus’ goes at a heck of a lick, a bit too much so for ideal articulation in the fugue at “dispossessed, aside thrust”; the choral singing, though, is mercifully free from pantomime cackling. Elsewhere the choral sound is finely balanced; I don’t recall the eight-part texture at the end of ‘Praise to the holiest’ ever sounding clearer. There is little bloom to the sound, though, especially in the sopranos, but I suspect this has more to do with the Barbican’s acoustic than the actual singing.
Of the soloists, Alastair Miles has authority as the Priest in ‘Part One’ and in ‘Part Two’ is a more human Angel of the Agony than we sometimes hear. David Rendall’s Gerontius, however, is disappointing, suffering from a persistent heavy vibrato, which results in often fairly approximate intonation. Although, it should be noted that Rendall was a late replacement for an ailing Ben Heppner.
But the recording has one ace up its sleeve, in Anne Sofie von Otter’s Angel. She has been a favourite singer of mine for years, so I’m probably biased, but the warmth and tenderness in her voice can easily stand comparison with the likes of Janet Baker and Helen Watts. The soft “Alleluia” at the end of her first solo is one of the most magical passages in the whole performance, and she maintains concentration in her great ‘Farewell’, in spite of Davis’s almost indulgently slow tempo.
If this isn’t one of the great recorded accounts of ‘Gerontius’, it is certainly worth hearing – and not just for Otter. It’s very encouraging to see, especially given LSO Live’s budget price, that Cardinal Newman’s text is printed in full in the booklet.