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The Dream of Gerontius: A guide to Elgar’s famous oratorio and its best recordings

Mikel Toms searches out the best recordings of a dramatic oratorio that revolutionised British choral music and won many admirers abroad

Elgar's Dream of Gerontius guide and its best recordings

International fame and, with it, financial security came late for Edward Elgar – he was 42 years old when his Enigma Variations and, then, The Dream of Gerontius brought him international recognition at the turn of the 20th century.

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Born and bred in Worcestershire, he forged his early career there and became celebrated in local music circles but, as he ruefully wrote to a friend in 1884, was perpetually penniless. Moving to London to enhance his prospects in the early 1890s brought only unhappiness and little change of fortune, and he and his wife Alice soon returned to his home county.

When did Elgar compose The Dream of Gerontius?

In 1900, Edward Elgar was flushed with the success of the Enigma Variations, premiered just one year earlier. After years of musical struggle, things were looking up for this jobbing, provincial violin teacher. Over the course of the previous decade, he had produced a series of well received, large-scale choral works, including Caractacus and The Light of Life, and when the Birmingham Music Festival approached him to write a new choral work, he had already made his mark as one of the most respected of emerging British composers. The Dream of Gerontius, however, would propel him to international fame and is now widely considered to be his masterpiece, arguably the greatest work of English choral music ever written.

Like the death of the eponymous Gerontius, The Dream’s birth was no straightforward matter. Elgar had owned a copy of Cardinal Newman’s 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius for a number of years and had long toyed with the idea of setting it to music. The poem was a huge success when it was first published, but by the time Elgar came to set it its popularity had waned and its overtly Catholic take on the afterlife would have ruffled not a few Anglican feathers.

Elgar composed quickly, largely completing the work at the small cottage he and his wife Alice rented at Birchwood. An idyllic woodland retreat just outside Malvern, Birchwood must surely have coloured his setting of the famous line in which Gerontius compares the sound of the House of Judgement to ‘The summer wind among the lofty pines’.

He was composing to a tight deadline, however, and the first performance was plagued by mishaps. The choirmaster, Charles Swinnerton Heap, died shortly after rehearsals began and was replaced by the ageing William Stockley, who wasn’t equal to the task and who, in any case, didn’t try to mask his distaste for the subject matter. Hans Richter, the conductor, only received the full score one day before orchestra rehearsals began and only one of the soloists was in good voice on the day. Although the press generally conceded that a decent work had been presented, it was widely accepted that the first performance had been a disaster.

The German conductor Julius Buths was in the Birmingham audience and recognised that Gerontius merited a decent hearing. It was Buths’s performances in Düsseldorf in 1901 and ’02 that alerted the British musical world to the fact that Elgar had indeed produced something extraordinary. The occasions were a huge success, Elgar was fêted as a hero and was presented with two enormous laurel wreaths which he and Alice somehow managed to lug back to Malvern. Richard Strauss wrote ‘I raise my glass to the welfare and success of the first English progressivist, Meister Elgar’. If the Catholic Elgar hadn’t arrived before, the Anglican establishment had no choice but to concede that he certainly had done so now.

What is the story behind The Dream of Gerontius?

Part I of The Dream portrays the dying moments of Gerontius, whom Elgar thought of as an everyman: a devoutly religious man, but a sinner, not a priest. His friends gather round and pray for him while he begins to experience the sensation of his soul separating from his body. He realises that his final hour has arrived (‘Novissima hora est’) and a priest sends him on his journey into the afterlife (‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’).

In Part II, Gerontius, now simply called the Soul, awakes to find himself in the afterlife and meets his guardian angel who is leading him towards the House of Judgement. They encounter a chorus of demons and then a chorus of angels sings ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. The Angel of the Agony intones a prayer of intercession on behalf of the Soul who then sings ‘I go before my judge’. Accompanied by one of the most emotionally devastating single chords in the whole repertoire, Gerontius sees God and receives his judgement. The Angel takes him down to Purgatory, promising to return in the morning to lead him to Heaven (‘Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul’).

Gerontius isn’t an oratorio in the conventional sense. It isn’t drawn from a biblical text and is conceived as an uninterrupted drama instead of being divided into separate musical numbers. It has more in common with Wagner than with Mendelssohn or Handel. This was something altogether new, and it’s worth remembering that in 1900 this was modern, even shocking music.

Gerontius established Elgar as the leading British composer of his day but its Catholic depiction of Purgatory and its invocations of the Virgin Mary also underscored his outsider status. Few, though, would argue with Elgar’s own assessment, appropriating John Ruskin’s celebrated quotation, that The Dream of Gerontius represented the ‘best of me’.

The best recordings of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Andrew Davis (conductor)

Stuart Skelton (tenor), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), David Soar (bass); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra

Chandos CHSA5140(2)

Andrew Davis first heard The Dream of Gerontius when he was 14 years old, and this 2014 recording is an eloquent testament to a lifetime spent absorbing and processing this musically and emotionally complex work. Each nuance of Elgar’s score is respected, the playing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra is flawless and Davis evinces as good a grasp of the work’s inner drama as is surely possible.

Elgar made substantial cuts to the poem and his libretto concentrates more on the human experience of Gerontius than on the theological aspects of Newman’s original text. In this respect, Stuart Skelton is the ideal protagonist, perfectly carrying forward the psychological drama which leads Gerontius from his deathbed to Judgement and Purgatory. Where others might approach the part in much the same way as they would a more traditional oratorio, Skelton gives a searing, almost verismo portrait of a man at times frail, at others defiant, confused, awed, scared or at peace. His ‘Sanctus fortis’ is an earnest profession of faith, his ‘Novissima hora est’ is suffused with apprehension and wonderment, and after ‘Take me away’ we witness a man hollowed out by the judgement of God. He is one of only a very few on record who have the extraordinary tonal range needed for this role.

Mezzo Sarah Connolly is pre-eminent as the Angel. Her ruby-red lower register and limpid, warm high notes are used with intelligence and understanding throughout. Like Skelton, she makes sense of the evolving nature of her role: authoritative, reassuring, awe-struck, loving. This is very much a journey undertaken by two beings, not one. David Soar is an authoritative Priest/Angel of the Agony and the BBC Symphony Chorus make resoundingly light work of Elgar’s fiendish choral writing.

The unsung heroes of this recording, though, are the sound engineers. Elgar’s score is huge and complex, and however fine the performances on earlier recordings are, most suffer, by today’s standards, from inadequate engineering. This recording is one of only a handful in which Elgar’s orchestration and vocal writing is afforded the acoustic space and the clarity to be properly heard and, combined with Davis’s unhurried performance which allows the drama to unfold on its own terms, gives as good a recorded account of this work as is currently available.

Mark Elder (conductor)

Hallé  CDHLD 7520

Another remarkable account from another distinguished Elgarian: Mark Elder. The Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir in this 2008 recording create a colourful, virtuosic and secure structure around which the vocal drama unfolds and, again, the beautiful sound engineering allows every detail of Elgar’s score to breathe. This recording should be heard for Bryn Terfel’s Priest/Angel of the Agony alone, though. His is by far the best performance available on record and he is the only singer who achieves that perfect balance between thundering authority and loving compassion.

John Barbirolli (conductor)

Warner Classics 573 5792

Considered for decades to be the definitive Gerontius, Barbirolli’s 1965 release needs to be included on any list of recommended recordings. For many, the role of the Angel is virtually synonymous with Janet Baker’s rich and moving performance on this recording, which has become a benchmark for all subsequent performances. The recorded quality is reasonable but modern audiences are spoiled by a choice of technically superior alternatives and, dare I say it, Barbirolli’s reading of the score is just not as accurate as the others listed here. (Warner Classics 573 5792)

Simon Rattle (conductor)

Warner Classics 749 5492

Janet Baker’s second recording as The Angel conveys all the maturity and depth of someone who has lived and breathed the role for a further two decades. Her voice in this superb 1986 release has a darker and warmer hue and it’s a terrific alternative reading. Elgar’s skill as an orchestrator often goes unmentioned but Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra bring out all of the score’s colour and textures as careful attention is paid to every last detail. 

And one to avoid…

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There is much to recommend Daniel Barenboim’s 2017 recording. The Staatskapelle Berlin is as virtuosic and warm as you would expect and Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a superb, distinctly human Angel. But while Barenboim guides us capably through the score, the performance lacks the breadth and breathing space of other recordings and it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that this is primarily a vocal work. Not so much one to avoid, perhaps, as one not to listen to first.