27 October 2014

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar – SEA PICTURES and THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (S. Connolly, S. Skelton, D. Soar; Chandos CHSA 5140(2))

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar - SEA PICTURES & THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (CHSA 5140(2))SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): Sea Pictures, Op. 37 and The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; David Soar, bass; BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis, conductor [Recorded at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Greater London, UK, 3 – 5 April 2014; Chandos CHSA 5140(2); 2 CD, 124:47; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Intrusions of politics into musical matters are nothing new. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the career of Sir Edward Elgar was complicated by machinations resulting from official and unofficial opposition to his Catholicism. Though he was knighted in 1904 and appointed to the illustrious Order of Merit in 1911, it was not until 1924 that, less than a month before his sixty-seventh birthday, he was named Master of the King’s Music, succeeding Sir Walter Parratt, who had been in musical service to the Crown since the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign and was at least as accomplished on the chessboard as at the organ. Though Elgar was undoubtedly the foremost British composer of his generation and, indeed, one of the finest musical geniuses ever produced by the British Isles, his working-class ancestry and lack of a conservatory education engendered insecurities about his importance as a composer and, to a greater extent, the legitimacy of his place in musical society. Whatever cabals and intrigues might ultimately have cost him personally and professionally, few of Elgar’s works were subjected to more debilitating and ideologically nonsensical meddling than his 1900 masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. The Anglican establishment in Britain, particularly the Deans of Gloucester and Peterborough Cathedrals, proved hostile to the dogmatic elements of the text by Cardinal Newman, himself an Anglican convert to Catholicism. The first performance of The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Festival on 3 October 1900, conducted by Hans Richter, who also led the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, was one of the most conspicuous near-disasters in music history: inadequately rehearsed and perhaps somewhat resistant to the formidable demands of Elgar’s music, the choristers sang poorly, and two of the soloists were out of sorts. When The Dream of Gerontius received its German première a year later, however, the score won Elgar the admiration of Richard Strauss and began a conquest of churches and concert halls that unfurled the glories of the music throughout the world, eventually overcoming even the textual alterations to which Elgar was forced to submit in Britain. More than a century after its Chicago première introduced The Dream of Gerontius to the United States, it remains an infrequent visitor on American shores. Both for those who love the score and those who, like the audience in Birmingham in October 1900, have not heard the music adequately performed, this new recording from Chandos is an unexpected gift. Here, in these opulent performances of The Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures, are manifestations of the indefatigable love for music that is the defining ethos of Elgar as a man and an artist.

In Sir Andrew Davis, these recordings of The Dream of Gerontius and Sea Pictures have as accomplished and justifiably-acclaimed an interpreter of Elgar’s music as could have been engaged to lead these performances. With lovingly idiomatic recordings of the Enigma Variations, Falstaff, The Music Makers, The Crown of India, and The Starlight Express to his credit, as well as a previous recording of The Dream of Gerontius with Philip Langridge in the title rôle, Maestro Davis has a proven affinity for pacing Elgar’s scores, a talent recognized by Britain’s Elgar Society with the awarding of the Elgar Medal to him earlier in 2014. The unselfconscious clarity of his conducting of this performance of The Dream of Gerontius is superb, combining the innate authority of Sargent, Barbirolli, and Boult with a measure of the unique insightfulness of Britten. Without over-accentuating any of the instrumental parts, Maestro Davis encourages the BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians to playing that leaves no detail of Elgar’s imaginative orchestrations unrealized. Though the composer’s part-writing was quite original, there are suggestions of Wagnerian models in the music for the brasses and woodwinds in The Dream of Gerontius, and Maestro Davis explores the weight of these passages without attempting to make the score a Parsifal in miniature. The episodic Prelude, offered in both its original and freestanding concert forms, is thoughtfully played, and a particular success of Maestro Davis’s conducting is his attention to phrasing each motif in the Prelude with foresight of how it subsequently appears in the score. The wind players, percussionists, and organist distinguish themselves with unusually accurate playing of their difficult parts, but all of the BBC Symphony personnel play capably, collaborating with Maestro Davis in an ideally-scaled reading that pays homage to both the traditional Romanticism and the sometimes surprising modernity of Elgar’s score. Maestro Davis’s tempi tread the precarious path between the equally-ruinous ravines of treating The Dream of Gerontius like a sacred opera and approaching the score as a bloodless oratorio or bloated cantata. The peculiar symmetry of the work’s two parts is emphasized, and both Maestro Davis and his orchestra fulfill their duties with distinction that goes far beyond mere professionalism.

Like their orchestral colleagues, the singers of the BBC Symphony Chorus are in familiar territory in the music of Elgar, but their singing in this performance confirms that this familiarity has kindled fondness rather than boredom. In Part One, the gravitas of the Assistants’ singing of ‘Kyrie eleïson,’ ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, o Lord,’ and ‘Rescue him, o Lord, in this his evil hour’ is profoundly moving, and the sheer exaltation of their delivery of ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ is stirring. In Part Two, the choristers’ voicing of the Demons’ ‘Low-born clods of brute earth’ and ‘The mind bold and independent’ crackles with contempt, the merciless mocking of human aspirations to righteousness in ‘What’s a saint? / One whose breath / Doth the air taint / Before his death; / Ha! Ha! / A bundle of bones / Which fools adore / When life is o’er’ hurled out with glee and the suitably devilish fugal passages handled with aplomb. When fiendish voices give way to the Choir of Angelicals, comprised solely of ladies’ voices, the radiant but slightly impersonal utterances of ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Glory to Him, who evermore / By truth and justice reigns’ contrast poignantly with the penitent, deeply personal entreaties of ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge,’ ‘Come back, o Lord,’ and ‘Bring us not, Lord, very low’ by the Souls in Purgatory. The first-rate engineering of the recording enables Elgar’s antiphonal writing to make its full effect, and the choristers are placed in an acoustical space that replicates the sonic profile of a well-built concert hall. Elgar’s desired positioning of the semi-chorus near the front of the stage in performance is suggested by the recording, and the sharp definition of the sound complements the chorus’s dazzling articulation of contrapuntal music. The participation of the BBC Symphony Chorus in a recording of any work engenders expectations of fine singing, but such expectations are lavishly exceeded by the choral singing in this performance of The Dream of Gerontius.

Though the respective ranges of the music for the Priest and the Angel of the Agony inhabit slightly different regions of the male voice, both parts were sung in the first performance by Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene, whose rôles at Covent Garden were the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the duc de Vérone in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, both bass parts. The Priest and the Angel of the Agony have occasionally been assigned to different singers in performances of The Dream of Gerontius, but tradition has mostly followed the example of the Birmingham première. In this recording, both parts are sung by Nottinghamshire-born bass David Soar, who débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Masetto in Don Giovanni and returned to New York in September 2014 to sing Colline in La bohème. As the Priest in Part One of The Dream of Gerontius, Mr. Soar’s sonorous singing of ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo’ is keenly reflective, his enunciation of the Latin text sensitive but pointed. The Angel of the Agony’s ‘Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee’ in Part Two draws from Mr. Soar robustly muscular singing. Mr. Soar’s tonal production is smoother than John Shirley-Quirk’s, and his timbre is lighter than Gwynne Howell’s, but his singing in this performance combines aspects of the former’s incisive utilization of text and uncompromising solemnity of declamation with the latter’s vocal opulence. He is memorable as both the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, brief as their interjections are, but even his dramatic persuasiveness is secondary to the attractiveness of his singing.

Were singing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius not challenge enough, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly opens the first disc of this recording with an imposing performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, premièred by contralto Dame Clara Butt—costumed as a mermaid!—in 1899. The Sea Pictures discography is dominated by Dame Janet Baker, but Ms. Connolly also recorded a potent performance of the songs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2006. In this recording, she and Maestro Davis create a haunting atmosphere, redolent of the sea and perceptive of the parallels between humanity and maritime nature. In ‘Sea Slumber-Song,’ Ms. Connolly’s quiet singing radiates maternal affection, and her evocation of peace within the tempest in ‘In Haven (Capri)’ is limpidly serene. The imagery of the sea as the medium of connection with the divine in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ is eloquently elucidated by the singer’s vocal confidence and perfect diction. The mystery of ‘Where Corals Lie’ draws both singer and listener into the text, and Ms. Connolly reacts with singing that avoids ponderousness. The grandiloquence of her traversal of ‘The Swimmer,’ recalling not only Baker but Kathleen Ferrier before her, is magnificent, but the voice moves through the music with delicacy and flashes of humor. The brilliance and unflappable security of her top A in the song’s final phrase are eerily reminiscent of the singing of the young Christa Ludwig.

The Angel in The Dream of Gerontius was first sung by Marie Brema, a versatile singer whose Wagner repertory included Ortrud in Lohengrin, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Fricka in Das Rheingold, the Walküre and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes, and Kundry in Parsifal. In addition to her substantial achievements in music by Monteverdi, Bach, Händel, Mozart and bel canto, Ms. Connolly has shown in recent seasons that she is a bar-raising interpreter of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss repertory, as well. She proves in this recording that she is also an eminent portrayer of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius. Her singing of ‘My work is done’ conveys a palpable sense of relief, and her answer to Gerontius’s Faustian quest for comprehension beyond his capacity, ‘You cannot now cherish a wish which ought not to be wish’d,’ is affectionate rather than arrogant. In Ms. Connolly’s performance, ‘It is because then thou didst fear, that now thou dost not fear’ movingly expresses the Angel’s faith in the redemptive capacity of humility. The Angel’s description of Christ’s time on earth is reverently voiced, and the affecting melodic lines of ‘Thy judgment now is near,’ ‘Praise to His name,’ ‘O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe, consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God,’ and ‘Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul, in my most loving arms I now enfold thee’ are phrased with subtlety and sung with flawless intonation. The pinnacle of Ms. Connolly’s performance is her uplifting assurance of Gerontius that ‘swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, and I will come and wake thee on the morrow.’ Like Mr. Soar’s performance, the tremendous empathy of her portrayal of the Angel is enhanced immeasurably by the simple beauty of her singing.

Bolstered by the expressivity of Maestro Davis’s shaping of the performance, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton gives a performance of Gerontius’s music of vocal elasticity rare for a singer whose acclaimed operatic portrayals include Siegmund in Die Walküre and the Drum Major in Berg’s Wozzeck. In truth, it is to a voice like Mr. Skelton’s that Gerontius’s music is best suited, but few are the singers who can combine vocal heft with flexibility and tonal allure as adroitly as Mr. Skelton does in this performance. In Part One, he immediately introduces the listener to a devout but uncertain Gerontius, his singing of ‘Jesu, Maria – I am near to death’ disclosing faith tested by fear. The potency of his phrasing of ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ is perpetuated in his singing of ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus.’ The exhaustion and trepidation in his voicing of ‘I can no more; for now it comes again’ and ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ are broadly imparted without seeming melodramatic, and this Gerontius’s death is both moving and cathartic—the death of a man like those said in Luke 20:36 to be ‘equal to angels and…sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’ In Part Two, there is an audible air of rejuvenation in Mr. Skelton’s singing of ‘I went to sleep; and now I am refresh’d’ that persists in his assured delivery of ‘It is a member of that family’ and ‘I ever had believed.’ The unsettling anxiety of ‘But hark! upon my sense comes a fierce hubbub’ is answered by the contemplative composure of ‘I see not those false spirits’ and ‘But hark! a grand, mysterious harmony.’ The sobriety of Mr. Skelton’s singing of ‘I go before my Judge’ is juxtaposed with the compelling power with which he proclaims ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be.’ Mr. Skelton has the vocal resources to evince fervor without shouting, and he observes Elgar’s parlando markings without losing tonal focus. He reaches the part’s top B♭ easily, and his performance as a whole is notable for the scarcity of strain. Gerontius is a strenuous part, one of the most daunting tenor rôles in the concert repertory, and Mr. Skelton sings Elgar’s music with near-total success.

Like the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is a work that need not appeal to a listener’s spiritual ideology in order to engage his humanity on an esoteric level. Both Sea Pictures and The Dream of Gerontius are great music, and it is rare to hear either work performed with the expertise that the artists achieve on these Chandos discs. Indeed, especially in America, it is rare to hear these works at all. Hopefully, listeners throughout the world will hear Sarah Connolly’s hypnotic Sea Pictures and this inspiring Dream of Gerontius and say to the directors of their local musical institutions and choral societies, ‘Listen to what we are missing!’