Daniel Barenboim conducts Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar
WORKS: The Dream of Gerontius
PERFORMER: Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto), Andrew Staples (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone); Staatsopernchor Berlin; RIAS Kammerchor; Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
CATALOGUE NO: 483 1585

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This starts very well indeed. One thing even the best British conductors often miss in The Dream of Gerontius is the Wagnerian atmosphere and timescale of so much of this work. But as soon as the Prelude starts, it’s clear that this is a composer who’s been profoundly impressed by Parsifal. There’s arguably no conductor today who understands better than Daniel Barenboim how Wagner unfolds, and I’ve never been more convinced by his application of that knowledge to Elgar. The sound he gets from the orchestra, and from the chorus, has a richness and depth that make this work sound truly Catholic – no Protestant squeamishness here about the sensuous dimension to all this mysticism. And the recording captures and enhances that marvellously.

When Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Angel enters she seems utterly at one with Barenboim’s vision – that really is the word. The problem is Andrew Staples’s Gerontius. He has a firm, clear voice, with a pleasing tonal range, and an especially beautiful pianissimo. But where is that sense of a soul on the rack in Part One, or ecstatically transfigured in Part Two? The great confession of faith ‘Sanctus fortis’ ought to sound like a man clinging for his life to a rope swinging over an abyss. It’s much too measured, too dignified for that. Even the moment of death, ‘Novissima hora est’, doesn’t really stir the feelings, finely engineered though it is. Listening to Wyn-Rogers’s ‘Angel’s Farewell’ you get a sense of the great recording this very nearly was. But it isn’t, and for that reason I can’t even give it a qualified recommendation.

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Stephen Johnson