14 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar — THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (A. Staples, C. Wyn-Rogers, T. Hampson; DECCA 483 1585)

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar - THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (DECCA 483 1585)SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38Andrew Staples (Gerontius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (The Angel), Thomas Hampson (The Priest, The Angel of the Agony); Staatsopernchor Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, Konzertchor und Jugendchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with live performances in Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, 16 – 17 and 19 – 20 September 2016; DECCA 483 1585; 2 CDs, 94:01; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

The isolation that often separates artists from their societies has been both a part and a product of the creative process since man first expressed himself in verse, song, and imagery. In the Biblical narrative of Eden, man’s relative proximity to divinity isolates him from the meaner inhabitants of earth, a chasm between humanity and the natural world made arrestingly visual in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Cappella Sistina. In Shakespeare, the artistic temperament of Prospero encloses him away from the other players in his drama, and Hamlet’s brooding solitude engenders an emotional distance that not even Horatio can span. There are moments of compassion and conviviality, sometimes even genuine comfort, but full communion among artists and their surroundings is too often thwarted by mistrust and misunderstanding. This isolation, equally crippling and liberating, is a central focus of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius, an examination of a soul’s transition from life to afterlife that in the 1880s appealed to Antonín Dvoŕák, a man of great faith in a time of rapidly-spreading secularism, as a potential subject for a large-scaled choral work. Never taken up by the Czech composer, Newman’s words were ultimately matched with music by Sir Edward Elgar, whose Dream of Gerontius was composed in fulfillment of a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival and first performed—poorly, history records—at that gathering on 3 October 1900. It was an auspicious point of departure for choral music in the Twentieth Century and a lone artist’s warning to a world already on the brink of total war.

From the informed perspective of the Twenty-First Century, it is difficult to fathom that Elgar, the most quintessentially English of composers, was in a real sense an artist without a country. A devout Catholic in an unyielding Protestant society, Elgar was at odds with the artistic establishment of which his own music was a vital component. Though the ceremonial toll exacted by his faith was considerably higher than the true professional cost, the official patronage and recognition that he was denied by the country of which he was the undisputed musical monarch cannot have failed to awaken in Elgar a feeling of disenfranchisement. That Cardinal Newman was himself a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism undoubtedly intensified the allure of his words for Elgar, who received as a wedding gift an annotated copy of Newman’s poem that had belonged to General Gordon, the self-appointed martyr of the 1885 massacre of Khartoum. Possessing an uncanny intuition for selecting texts that, even when undeniably pompous, stoked his creative genius, Elgar brought to Newman’s words a wealth of imagination that was manifested in music of tremendous difficulty and still-potent beauty. Not even the score winning the esteem of Richard Strauss spared Elgar the indignities of seeing both his instructions that Dream of Gerontius not be termed an oratorio ignored and the work’s Catholic point of view modified to suit Anglican tastes. Not quite four months remained in Queen Victoria’s long reign at the time of Gerontius’s first performance: already in danger of becoming an anachronism, Elgar propelled himself and his reluctant countrymen into tuneful but terrifying modernity.

A committed advocate for Elgar’s music in concert halls and recording studios, Buenos Aires-born conductor Daniel Barenboim continues his survey of the composer’s music for DECCA with a superlatively-engineered account of The Dream of Gerontius recorded in conjunction with much-discussed performances in Berlin’s Philharmonie. DECCA’s sonics capture the frisson of live performance with virtually none of the distracting blemishes, and the venue’s spacious acoustic is a worthy setting for the sumptuous but sinewy playing of Staatskapelle Berlin, a source of strength throughout the performance. This recording is among Barenboim’s finest outings as a conductor, his pacing of the score meriting favorable comparison with long-respected performances led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Adrian Boult, and Sir John Barbirolli. The ‘Lento, mistico’ marking of the Prelude’s opening is meticulously observed, and the orchestra’s wind playing here and throughout the performance is superb. Following with the score, it is possible to note Barenboim’s reaction to virtually every shift in tempo or dynamics. When the music calls for vehemence, the conductor does not shrink from it, but the dramatic thrust of this Gerontius is never forced. Aided by DECCA’s production team, Barenboim and the orchestra attain—and maintain—aural balances in which details of Elgar’s orchestrations, particularly his inspired writing for the harp, are consistently audible within appropriate perspectives. Instructions such as ‘crescendo ed agitato,’ ‘naturale,’ and ‘affrettando’ have logical, discernible meaning in this performance. Considering his decades-long relationship with the music of Richard Wagner, Barenboim’s insightful handling of musical textures is not surprising, but there is much about his leadership of this Dream of Gerontius that profoundly surprises and gratifies. Above all, Barenboim and his German colleagues prove that suggestions that this music is too English to be wholly effective beyond Britain’s borders are as idiotic as they are ill-founded.

Under the direction of chorus masters Martin Wright and Justin Doyle, the combined personnel of the Staatsopernchor and RIAS Kammerchor bring to this performance of Dream of Gerontius irreproachable musicality, immaculate intonation, excellent diction, and complete comfort with Elgar’s demanding choral writing—an accomplishment that infamously eluded the choir by which the music was first performed. As the Assistants observing Gerontius’s final hours on earth in Part One, the choristers deliver ‘Kyrie eleïson’ with an apt aura of supplication, and their singing of ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ is entrancingly pleading. Darker sentiments increase the fervor of the chorus’s entreaties with the evocation of iniquity in ‘Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour,’ but the faithful sincerity of ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ is touchingly conveyed. The Berliners revel in portraying the Demons who haunt Gerontius’s second Part, voicing ‘Lowborn clods of earth, they aspire to become gods’ and ‘The mind bold and independent’ with exhilaratingly infernal ferocity. The religious ardor of their performances of the Angelicals’ ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Glory to Him, who evermore by truth and justice reigns’ equals the zeal of their demonic utterances, and in both the earthly voices’ ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ and the Purgatory-bound souls’ ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’ their vocalism capitalizes on the music’s potential to startle and soothe. The English choral tradition is rightly legendary, but the choral singing on this recording confirms that Berlin is as natural a home for Gerontius as Birmingham.

In his singing of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, American baritone Thomas Hampson wields the vocal and histrionic gravitas that the music needs without pushing the voice. In Part One, he phrases the Priest’s ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!’ with keen response to the text, breathing life into Elgar’s poignant setting of the Latin words. Greater effort is expended in Hampson’s singing in this performance than in his previous recordings of similar repertory such as the title rôles in Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Paulus, but his years of experience have honed his interpretive skills without diminishing his vocal control. As the Angel of the Agony in Part Two, the baritone voices ‘Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee’ with stern authority, the words receiving as much of the singer’s scrutiny as the notes. Even with so many fascinating operatic characterizations to his credit, this is among Hampson’s best recorded performances. An exceptionally persuasive rendering of Elgar’s forthright music on his own terms, Hampson’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is also a lesson for young singers in the art of preserving the voice by safeguarding both the technique and one’s artistic integrity.

It is now nearly a quarter-century since the impeccably-schooled voice of British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers first counseled a recorded Gerontius in his preparation for divine judgment. Interacting with the Gerontius of Anthony Rolfe Johnson under the baton of Vernon Handley, she was a serene presence as the Angel. Like Hampson, Wyn-Rogers has managed her career with rare intelligence, and her sagacity has fortified the voice against the ill effects of passing time. With her pianissimo statement of ‘My work is done, my task is o’er,’ building to a secure fortissimo E at the top of the stave, she recreates the emotional honesty of her 1993 performance and adds a new dimension of restrained rapture. There is in her assertion of ‘You cannot now cherish a wish which ought not to be wished’ a sense of gentle reprimand, the singer’s adherence to Elgar’s ‘espressivo’ direction supported by the conductor. The mezzo-soprano differentiates ‘It is because then thou didst not fear, that now thou dost not fear’ and ‘They sing of thy approaching agony’ with subtle inflections rather than overstated emoting, and her voicing of ‘And now the threshold, as we traverse it, utters aloud its glad responsive chant’ and ‘O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe’ exudes the assurance of triumphant faith. Wyn-Rogers’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is never more beautiful than in ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransom’d soul,’ her timbre glimmering. Like Hampson’s, Wyn-Rogers’s vocalism is now marginally more laborious than in years past, but the rewards are also more special. As a young singer in training, Wyn-Rogers won the Royal College of Music’s prize honoring contralto Dame Clara Butt, for whom Elgar composed his Sea Pictures: with her singing in this performance of Dream of Gerontius, she earns the distinction anew.

Much of the attention garnered by the performances of Dream of Gerontius that produced this recording was focused on who did not sing the title rôle, a surely unintentional affront to the very gifted artist who stepped in and furnished a beautifully-sung, unaffectedly moving interpretation of Gerontius. Created in the work’s 1900 première by Edward Lloyd, a tenor acclaimed for his singing of rôles in sacred works by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir Hubert Parry, Gerontius has been sung by a broad spectrum of voices ranging from the lyric instruments of Gervase Elwes and Heddle Nash to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers and John Mitchinson. In Berlin in 2016, the part was sung by native Londoner Andrew Staples, a tenor whose artistry recalls the interpretive finesse and honeyed tones of Elwes. As the man facing death in Part One, Staples lofts Gerontius’s words on plumes of ideally-supported tone, declaiming ‘Jesu, Maria — I am near to death’ with dulcet simplicity. His exhortation to ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ is suitably inspiriting, and, like Hampson, the tenor excels in Elgar’s Latin word painting, voicing ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus, de profundis oro te’ with expressive immediacy. Staples sings ‘I can no more; for now it comes again’ with a sudden rush of trepidation, and his ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ is the exclamation of a man wearied by life.

In the depiction of the harrowing progress of Gerontius’s soul towards final judgment in Part Two, Staples avoids operatic ostentation, building his portrayal upon a foundation of subtlety and sensitivity. The wonder with which ‘I went to sleep; and now I am refresh’d’ is phrased is obviously heartfelt, and Staples communicates the breadth of the character’s faith with exquisitely-wrought performances of ‘I would have nothing but to speak with thee for speaking’s sake’ and ‘My soul is in my hand.’ When Gerontius’s soul sings ‘I hear the voices that I left on earth’ in this performance, it is with reverence rather than wistfulness. Like his Angel, this soul’s voice is most beguiling when embracing the resolution of the spiritual journey, Staples singing ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be’ with grace that not even Nicolai Gedda effectuated. Virtually every Gerontius on disc offers his own unique qualities, but Staples’s interpretation on these discs arises from as complete a mastery of the rôle’s diverse challenges as any singer has exhibited in recent memory.

Proving that The Dream of Gerontius is a work of immense significance in the career of its composer and the histories of English choral music and Western art is a responsibility that this recording and the artists who participated in it do not bear, but were this the sole evidence with which to assess the score’s value the judgment would be an affirmation of the widespread acclaim that the music has kindled in the 117 years since it was first heard. This performance of Elgar’s candid paean to the transfiguring tribulations of an artist’s soul achieves what any performance of The Dream of Gerontius should do: the isolation that is so inherent a part of an artist’s existence can perhaps never be eradicated, and perhaps should not be, but this Gerontius’s dream of reminding the listener of the universality of man’s fears, failings, and reliance upon hope comes marvelously to fruition.