Saturday, June 15, 2024

McCreesh and Gabrieli's "The Dream of Gerontius 1900"

This latest recording of Sir Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius features period instruments--not of the Renaissance or Romantic periods, but of the early Twentieth Century. As this review from PrestoMusic's website explains:

As with all their recordings, McCreesh and his players have made enormous effort to research the types of instruments that would likely have been used at the Birmingham premiere, from Érard harps and a Lorée oboe previously owned by celebrated oboist Léon Goossens, to piston horns and narrow-bore trombones (including Elgar's own instrument).

The differences are striking and immediately apparent: from the opening moments of the prelude where violas are doubled by clarinets and bassoons, to a few bars later where the cor anglais takes over, the subtleties of Elgar's orchestration are realised to great effect. Similarly, the brass are capable of being loud without obliterating the rest of the orchestra; the way that the horns and trombones spit out their beastly contributions to the Demon Chorus is especially satisfying.

Most beguiling of all, however, is the timbre of the strings. The extensive use of gut strings allows for a haunting transparency of sound, which pays enormous dividends at the hushed start of Part Two. . . .

And I agree with the reviewer that the moment when the Soul of Gerontius sees God for Judgment is tremendous! There's a generous playlist here. Listen to the Prelude!

The vocalists are also splendid, especially Nicky Spence as Gerontius. He doesn't seem as strained by the heldentenor passages and sensitively expresses the emotions of the more lyrical moments. Anna Stéphany can't replace Janet Baker in my memory, but is quite good. I still like Gerard Finley's Priest/Angel of the Agony from Sir Colin Davis's 2008 performance much better than this soloist (Andrew Foster-Williams). Listening to some samples from Daniel Barenboim's recording by Thomas Hampson from 2017 places him in close second place.

Please note that I purchased my copy--and it came from Australia!! The two cds from Signum Classics are packaged very nicely in a book format with an essay by Stephen Hough ("Angelical Choirs") on the religious power of Newman's poem: acknowledging that not everyone who appreciates Elgar's achievement in this work has the same Catholic faith that Newman and Hough have, but that the power of the music is faithful to that religion upon which Newman based his poem. Hough quotes a letter from Newman to Georgiana, Lady Chatterton: "As to my own Gerontius, it was not the versification which sold it, but the subject. It is a RELIGIOUS subject which appeals to the feelings of everyone." (September 18, 1870.) 

You might be interested in listening to this BBC interview with Stephen Hough in which he:

reveals how Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius helped him back into the world of classical music after suffering a breakdown while at Cheetham's School of Music, and began his conversion to Catholicism as a teenager. (at 19:03)

Hough even chose the "Proficiscere"in a 2016 BBC Dessert Island Disc episode!

Mahan Esfahani, an Iranian-American harpsichordist, wrote the essay about Elgar's composition of the work and his disappointment in its first performance and its effect on his religious faith--his Catholicism in still anti-Catholic England ("Devilish Crossings"). As Esfahani notes, Elgar took a great risk in choosing Newman's poem to set to Wagnerian music for an English/Anglican choral festival. I don't think Elgar's faith ever recovered from that failure and rejection but I hope by the Grace of God, he knows what a success it has since become.

I'd recommend this set as a great addition to your Gerontius library.

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