Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 [94:00]
Paul Groves (tenor) – Gerontius; Sarah Connolly (mezzo) – The Angel; John Relyea (bass) – The Priest/Angel of the Agony
Staatsopernchor Dresden; Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 28 March 2010, Semperoper, Dresden
English text and German translation included
PROFIL PH12017 [36:31 + 57:29]

When I compiled my survey of recordings of The Dream of Gerontius in 2007 I was unable to give a welcome to the 2005 LSO Live recording conducted by Sir Colin Davis. This was no reflection on the LSO and its Chorus, still less on Sir Colin’s conducting; the problem was a very disappointing trio of soloists. When I updated the survey in 2014 I mentioned that I had heard a much finer performance by Sir Colin, broadcast from Dresden on Palm Sunday 2010 in which he had the benefit of superior soloists. I said “Recordings of a number of Sir Colin’s Dresden concerts have been issued on the Profil label and this Gerontius would be a prime candidate for issue by that label…. Unfortunately, this performance will probably never see the light of day because it’s marred by some irresponsible idiot in the audience who, unbelievably, briefly breaks into loud applause as Groves finishes the ‘Sanctus fortis’. That’s a great shame as I think this performance better serves Sir Colin’s reputation as an interpreter of Gerontius.” Well, I’m delighted to say that here is that very performance and no one need fear the intrusion of that attention-seeking member of the audience. His ignorant contribution has been excised; I can only assume that the dress rehearsal was taped also as a precaution.

This CD set has been issued as a specific tribute to Sir Colin by the Staatskapelle Dresden. He had a long and fruitful association with them, going back as far as 1983. In 1990 the orchestra conferred the title Conductor Laureate on Davis. This was the first – and, to date, the only – time that the orchestra has made such an appointment in its long and illustrious history. This surely indicates the respect in which this conductor was held by the musicians, who came to refer to him as ‘Der Sir’. This tribute is handsome indeed. Not only is the performance one of great stature but the booklet contains eloquent tributes to Davis and a host of photographs taken during the performance. Incidentally, Davis was in his eighty-third year when this performance took place and died just three years later yet the photographs – to say nothing of the performance itself – indicate no lessening of vitality or vigour on his part.

Though I made an off-air recording of the broadcast performance it’s a while since I listened to it and, to be honest, I’d rather forgotten just how good it is. For one thing, the orchestral playing is marvellous. Beginning with a lustrous and richly detailed account of the Prelude, the Staatskapelle Dresden offers wonderful playing throughout the work. They are fully responsive to the way Davis shapes the music. I don’t know how much Elgar this orchestra has played but the playing sounds completely idiomatic to me. One detail is worth mentioning. In the Prelude there are two places where Elgar dramatically cuts off the music when the brass are in full cry. This occurs 8 bars after cue 9 and a further 8 bars after that – about 5 minutes into this performance. On his recording Benjamin Britten, with the insight of a fellow-composer, inserted rolls on the bass drum at these two points and Davis – on both this recording and the LSO Live recording – is the only conductor I’ve heard who follows this example. It’s totally unauthorised but, though I normally dislike additions to what a composer has written, I think this particular example works very well. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that had he heard this done Elgar might have approved, rather as he approved of the extended trumpet note in the Second Symphony which has now become established performance practice. For me that typifies the depth of thought that Davis brings to the score; time and again throughout the performance I relished little nuances that he brings out in the orchestral writing to heighten the expressive effect.

He’s pretty well served by his choir also. The Staatsopernchor Dresden is, I presume, a fully professional ensemble and it shows in the quality of their singing. One notices that this isn’t an Anglophone chorus – in the Angelicals section leading up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, for example – but the accented English isn’t a problem as far as I’m concerned. I’m much more interested in the quality of the singing per se and that’s very high. Mind you, I don’t think that the Dresdeners put in the shade several of the amateur British choirs who have recorded this work. I’m thinking of such groups as the Hallé Choir for Elder (review); the CBSO Chorus for Oramo (review); the BBC Symphony Chorus for Sir Andrew Davis (review); and the LSO Chorus on Sir Colin’s other recording. And I noted that in ‘Praise to the Holiest’ the Dresden singers, while pretty attentive to the dynamics, are not as scrupulously observant as were the LSO Chorus in a live performance conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov that I reviewed recently. Nonetheless, this is an impressive showing by the German choir. Their soft singing is admirable and while they may not be the nastiest-sounding Demons one has heard they still come over strongly in that part of the score. No one who listens to this set is likely to be disappointed by the choral contribution.

Two of the three soloists have recorded their respective roles commercially. The one who hasn’t, so far as I’m aware, is John Relyea so it’s good to have his interpretations preserved. The two roles of The Priest and The Angel of the Agony are very different and, ideally, require different singers. Not all basses or baritones are equally successful in both parts but I think Relyea does both solos very well. He’s a dignified and firm-toned Priest, commending the soul of Gerontius with authority and no trace of sanctimoniousness. To the role of The Angel of the Agony he brings an imposing presence. I admire the way he sings the opening and closing stretches of that solo powerfully yet in the lyrical central section (from ‘Jesu, spare these souls who are so dear to Thee…’) he’s very expressive.

Paul Groves is the Gerontius on Sir Mark Elder’s extremely fine recording (review). He’s equally impressive here. His success in the role comes chiefly, I think, as a result of his ability to encompass equally well the physically and emotionally taxing passages such as ‘Sanctus fortis’ and, at the other extreme, the many episodes that require a lyrical and much more intimate approach. For Davis he is, if anything, even more expressive than he is on the Elder set. I remember thinking when I reviewed that studio recording that Groves was, perhaps, a bit more spontaneous in his 2005 Proms performance with Elder and I think that here, too, there’s a greater degree of spontaneity. That’s not in any way to diminish the achievement of his recording with Elder but the adrenalin of a one-off performance is perhaps beneficial here. I’m glad to have both performances in my collection.

That’s true of Sarah Connolly’s performance also. I made a point of recording the live broadcast of this concert chiefly because at that time there was no commercial recording of Miss Connolly as the Angel. Happily, Chandos plugged that gaping hole in the catalogue last year by engaging her for the excellent recording conducted by Sir Andrew Davis (review). As with Groves I wouldn’t wish to express a preference for her studio recording over this live performance – indeed, I can’t. However, I do have a sense that she, too, was even more spontaneous in the concert hall than she was in the studio. Her singing in Dresden was marvellous and Miss Connolly brings out so many expressive nuances in the score, not least in the extended dialogue with the Soul of Gerontius at the start of Part II.

Sir Colin conducts with great understanding and also with a fine dramatic sense. Some of his tempi are a little more urgent than we hear from many conductors. ‘Be merciful’ in Part I is an example and he also selects quite a flowing tempo for the short Prelude to Part II. Also in Part II he’s one of the swifter conductors I’ve heard in much of the Soul’s solo before the first appearance of the Angel. Yet I found his tempo selection and, indeed, every aspect of his management of the score completely convincing. Listen to the vitality and energy that he brings to such passages as the Demon’s Chorus; you’d scarcely think this is the work of a conductor in his eighties. His recordings of the Elgar symphonies on LSO Live were evidence of his impressive credentials as an Elgar conductor and this performance offers further proof.

Inevitably, I went back to the earlier Davis recording on LSO Live. That recording is from performances given nearly five years earlier, in December 2005. Perhaps unsurprisingly I don’t think there are any significant interpretative differences. Sir Colin is equally well served by both the LSO and the Staatskapelle Dresden and the choral participation is very good on both recordings though the music seems to come more naturally to the LSO Chorus. I suspect many listeners will prefer the Profil sound; the LSO Live recording was made in the Barbican and, by comparison, is rather close. The main difference lies in the soloists. I prefer John Relyea to Alistair Miles, who sings on the LSO Live performance. I now think I may have been a little harsh on Anne Sophie von Otter, who sang for Davis in 2005. Re-hearing her now she doesn’t come across as being cool, which is the view I previously had. But whereas, for example, her singing of the Farewell has more expressive involvement than I had remembered she doesn’t match the compassion or the tonal lustre of Sarah Connolly. I think the bottom line is that she’s not as naturally inside the music as Connolly, who is probably far more experienced in the role. As for David Rendall, I’m afraid his vibrato-rich singing still gives me no pleasure at all and he doesn’t begin to match the expressiveness nor, frankly, the imagination and subtlety that Paul Groves brings to the part of Gerontius.

So for me the choice is crystal clear. This Profil performance supersedes the LSO Live recording. If you want Sir Colin Davis in this work then this is the version to have. And if you have either the Elder or Andrew Davis recordings I’d argue that this performance complements the respective recordings by Paul Groves and Sarah Connolly so it’s well worth investing in this alternative set too.

The recorded sound is very good and the booklet, in German and English offers good documentation not only on the work but also on the relationship between Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

This is a handsome tribute by the Dresden orchestra to ‘Der Sir’. More than that, however, it’s a significant addition to the discography of The Dream of Gerontius. Profil have done a signal service in making this performance available.

John Quinn