Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

COMPOSERS: Elgar
LABELS: CBSO
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar
WORKS: The Dream of Gerontius
PERFORMER: Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Justin Lavender (tenor), Peter Rose (bass); City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
CATALOGUE NO: CD 003
The Prelude to Gerontius is nothing short of awe-inspiring: passionate, poignant, driven, and in the end tremendously powerful. It is also gloriously un-English: a vital reminder of the work’s roots in Parsifal and Brahms’s German Requiem. No question, if it were up to Sakari Oramo alone this would have been a truly great Gerontius. Without exception, all of the choral and orchestral passages here are stirring and superbly placed in the musical drama as a whole. Even the pantomimic Demons’ Chorus strikes sparks a-plenty. Peter Rose’s ‘Proficiscere’ is a thriller, and Jane Irwin’s Angel has soothing tenderness, even if she doesn’t

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quite match up to Janet Baker’s towering musicality.

If only Justin Lavender as The Soul were on the same level. His ‘Sanctus fortis’ has urgency – but then it would be difficult not to be swept along by Oramo’s direction at this point. But there’s too little variety in his performance (the hard tone isn’t always well focused), and he doesn’t hit every note right on target. In quieter, more inward passages – like opening solo or The Soul’s final moments – he

hardly approaches the heart.

Overall the EMI Barbirolli offers the best balance of strong, insightful cast and impassioned direction. But that Oramo is a front-rank Elgarian is confirmed by his Enigma Variations: a serious, powerfully symphonic reading which nevertheless finds plenty of room for playfulness, fantasy and warmth of feeling. The long-lost The Holly and the Ivy is a trifle, but a very likeable one, and again brought off beautifully. Superb recordings capture the glory of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall to the full.

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Stephen Johnson