Wednesday 5 June 2024

Sensitive solo performances, youth choirs and with a rediscovery of the original orchestral sound: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius from Gabrieli, Paul McCreesh, Nicky Spence

Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Nicky Spence, Andrew Foster-Williams, Anna Stephany, Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Roar, Polish National  Youth Choir, Gabrieli Players; Winged Lion

Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Nicky Spence, Andrew Foster-Williams, Anna Stéphany , Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Roar, Polish National Youth Choir, Gabrieli Players; Winged Lion
Reviewed 3 June 2024

A profoundly satisfying and highly intelligent account, combining sensitive solo performances with a rediscovery of the original sound world of Elgar's orchestra and terrific singing from the youth choirs

Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli's traversal of great choral works in recordings which refocus and recontextualise has reached Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius on Gabrieli's Winged Lion label. The recording pairs a recreation of an orchestra from around the time of the Birmingham premiere in 1900 with a choir which places its emphasis on youth, the Gabrieli Consort plus the Polish National Youth Choir and Gabrieli Roar, with soloists mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany, tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.

To an extent, we know what Elgar expected The Dream of Gerontius to sound like, there is a live recording of him conducting extracts from the Royal Albert Hall with a prelude that is frankly, revelatory. But much is simply tantalising, and perhaps more fascinating are the frustrating fragments of live recordings made at the Three Choirs Festival in 1927. The recording equipment at the rear of Hereford Cathedral, the sound distant and vague, but there is no denying the sheer, focused intensity of the tenor (Tudor Davies, I believe). Much more recently, in the 1980s, I had the privilege of singing the work with Bernard Haitink conducting and Richard Lewis singing one of his last performances. Lewis brought out the way that by living the work directly, a remarkable range expression can be revealed.

Here, McCreesh clearly relishes the sound world that his players create in the prelude, the sense of space in the orchestra and the greater range of colours from the instruments. But he does not let himself get seduced by the passing detail, and the whole prelude has a fine architectonic feel to it that makes it really work as a prelude to what is to come.

Nicky Spence has always struck me as a singer of remarkable versatility and sensitivity. Yes, we all remember his outrageous encores singing and dancing Scots traditional songs, but his fine appreciation of word and text is notable, his ability to embody each moment. His opening here has the focused intimacy and tingle factor that really makes it stand alone. When he opens up the voice it widens, in the modern manner, as you might expect but this is done intelligently and for much of Part One we notice the line, the intimacy and the tight focus of his performance. It feels as if, for style, he has taken on board elements of historical performance and absorbed them into his interpretation.

But this is not simply an academic exercise, in the dramatic moments in Part One, you feel the power of Spence's identification with part. The firmness, strength and intensity of 'Sanctus fortis' leads to a performance that seems to contain real identification with the text, the idea of Gerontius as a believing man of faith, with Spence shaping the line with great sensitivity

Part Two opens with a profound sense of intimacy from both Spence and McCreesh. But when we come to later, there is a grandeur and a resoluteness to Spence's performance that reflects the slow build of his intelligent approach, culminating in the sensitivity and intensity of his performance of Gerontius' closing passages, climaxing with account 'Take me away' that is positively searing. It is also spacious in terms of approach, having been wonderfully set up by McCreesh's dramatic approach to the preceding orchestral section. Yet Spence makes something warmly positive of Gerontius' final moments, too, which is all apiece with his identification with the piece.

Anna Stéphany impresses from the very opening of her solo, for the way she shapes word and music, and for her sensitivity, this is far from a big operatic performance, even in the Alleluias and her introduction to the demons. Firm and well modulated with sensitive phrasing, her account of the Angel's Farewell has a lovely inwardness to it, a poised sensitivity that characterises all of her performance. Throughout Stéphany's approach has a slight distance, with finely shaped phrases yet this is offset by the lovely warmth of her tone, expressive yet not overly emotional or operatic. For much of Part Two it is the interaction between Angel and Gerontius that counts, and here Stéphany and Spence seem to intelligently synchronous, in dialogue yet with the same sense of identification.

Andrew Foster-Williams give as a fine, trenchant yet sensitive account of 'Proficiscere' in Part One. Perfectly satisfying, yet you can't help feeling that at moments he is out sung by the wonderful choral singing. And as the Angel of the Agony he brings a warm intensity to the music.

Using youth choirs gives the choral sound a lovely clearness, helped by the poise that the quiet moments have. The choir's first entry is completely magical, with the semi-chorus moments having a transparency which is continued to the full choir. Yet in the big moments in Part One, such as 'Rescue him' there is a strength and purpose too.

In Part Two, the chorus relishes the Demons' Chorus without ever overdoing things, and thankfully we have no funny voices here, just fine singing. Yet the opening of the long 'Praise to the Holiest' sees the young singers performing with a lovely flexibility and transparency. For all the fineness of the choral singing in the big 'Praise to the Holiest' chorus, the singers do not get it all their own way and there is a lovely ensemble feel to it, singers, orchestra and organ in fine balance, along with McCreesh's loving control of tempo and pace. The young singers respond well, and there is a nice sense of detail too.

The CD booklet has a lovely discussion about the various historic instruments used on the recording, with most of the wind dating from the right period including Léon Goossens's French oboe and Elgar's own trombone. The organ is that of Hereford Cathedral, a 'Father' Willis organ originally built in 1892 and surviving as a fine example of an English romantic organ, here recorded separately and overdubbed.

Everyone has their own favourite when it comes to recordings of The Dream of Gerontius, from Sargent conducting Heddle Nash and Gladys Ripley to Barbirolli conducting Richard Lewis and Janet Baker to Boult conducting Nicola Gedda and Helen Watts. 

McCreesh's approach to the work is perhaps closer to the disciplined expression of Boult than the emotionalism of Barbirolli (discuss!). But certainly, McCreesh and his performers successfully carve their own niche, combining the rediscovery of the period orchestral sounds, the stunning singing from the youth choirs, the remarkably sensitive performances from Spence and Stephany, and McCreesh's own intelligently well structured approach to the work, creating satisfying whole.

Edward Elgar - The Dream of Gerontius (1900) [95.14]
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
Gabrieli Consort
Polish National Youth Choir
Gabrieli Roar
Gabrieli Players
Recorded Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 29 July to 1 August 2023, organ recorded at Hereford Cathedral, 10 October 2023
WINGED LION 2 CDs [36.41, 58.33]

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