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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 (1900)* [95:13]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) [11:54]
I was glad (1902, rev. 1911) [7:02]
Felicity Palmer (mezzo) - The Angel; Arthur Davies (tenor) - Gerontius; Gwynne Howell (bass) - The Priest and Angel of the Agony; Roderick Elms (organ)
London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 14-16 February, 1988, Watford Town Hall. DDD
English texts included
CHANDOS CHAN 241-46 [56:32 + 57:57]

In 2007, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth I surveyed for MusicWeb International all of the recordings of The Dream of Gerontius that I had heard. The survey included most of the versions - twelve in all - that had been set down over the years but this Hickox recording was one of a handful that I’d missed, which is odd since I have owned his recordings of The Apostles and The Kingdom for a long time. Now, twenty-five years after it was made the recording has been reissued by Chandos as part of their series, The Hickox Legacy so I can rectify my omission.
 
Just to recap, in 2007 I nominated the 1945 Sargent recording and Barbirolli’s 1964 version as “best in show” with the recording by Sir Simon Rattle as the best among the modern versions. Since then we haven’t had too many further recordings of Elgar’s masterpiece. 2008 brought a superb recording by Elder and the Hallé, which immediately joined the top recommendations (review). Subsequently, a live 2008 performance conducted by Ashkenazy came my way but this is a disappointing performance that comes nowhere near matching the best (review). So, does this reissued Hickox recording challenge existing recommendations?
 
Before appraising the Gerontius performance let’s pause to consider the two ‘fillers’. Parry’s great Coronation anthem, I was glad is heard in its full ceremonial dress, replete with additional trumpets and cries of ‘Vivat’. Predictably, this is just the sort of piece that responds well to Chandos recording expertise and the recording is splendid. The performance is good too.
 
I’m much less happy with Blest Pair of Sirens. Though this is a relatively short work it has strong claims to be regarded as one of the finest of all English choral/orchestral works; indeed, some would nominate it as the finest and it’s a work that I find thrilling to sing or hear. Not on this occasion, however. I’m sorry to say that I think Hickox’s view of it is fundamentally misconceived. His performance is far too relaxed and the timing of 11:54 rather gives the game away. The initial tempo marking is Allegro moderato, ma energico but Hickox seems to ignore the last two words and a little later on directions such as Animando and Animandosi similarly go for naught as Parry’s music proceeds on its stately way. Hickox emphasises the broad lyricism, which is fair enough, but where’s the sense of urgency? The great build-up to the end (from ‘To live with Him …’) is marked Più mosso but the tempo is unaltered from what has gone before and there’s little momentum in these marvellous pages. Turn to David Hill’s 1990 performance, now happily reissued on Australian Eloquence 476 2443, and there’s genuine excitement, the Winchester Cathedral organ underpinning the closing pages to thrilling effect. Compared to Hill, who takes 10:54, Hickox sounds disappointingly staid.
 
How does he fare, then, in Elgar’s masterpiece? The Prelude raises doubts. Although it’s marvellously played by the LSO, who are in superb form throughout, Hickox takes it very spaciously. The tempo marking is crotchet = 60 but Hickox is closer to 42 beats per minute and for much of the Prelude he’s slower than I think is ideal, not least in the bars immediately preceding the first entry of Gerontius. Thereafter matters improve and much of his pacing is accurate and sensible. However, there are a few further worrying passages. The quasi-plainchant passage in Part I (‘Noe from the waters…’) almost gets becalmed. At the other extreme Hickox presses ahead too enthusiastically in the second half of ‘Praise to the Holiest’, which degenerates into something of a babble just before cue 95 in the vocal score. Then in the closing moments of that chorus he pulls the tempo about more than once - completely unnecessarily - to make expressive points. The bars immediately after that great chorus (from cue 101), leading up to ‘Thy judgement now is near’, almost grind to a halt, so broadly does Hickox take them. These instances are a pity because for the most part his judgement of the score is pretty good.
 
The choral singing is as good as any I’ve heard on disc with the LSO Chorus observing Elgar’s copious dynamic markings very well indeed. At first listening what will probably catch your ear is the marvellous full-throated singing in the loud passages. ‘Go in the name of angels’ at the end of Part I is splendidly sonorous; the Demon’s Chorus is bitingly done and no choir since Barbirolli’s has injected such venom or employed a similar rough edge to the tone - and to such good effect - as is done here. The great outburst at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ is simply a knockout - both times. But listen again and it’s the quiet singing that really makes its mark. The choir achieves a breathtaking ppp, as marked, in the bar before ‘Novissima hora est’ and in Part II, immediately after Gerontius’ final solo, I have never heard the passage at cue 125 ‘Lord, Thou has been our refuge’, sung so quietly. Actually, at this point the sound verges on inaudibility and perhaps the effect has been exaggerated just a little? In summary, the choral singing is top class and I can’t overlook praising the ladies’ marvellous singing as Angelicals in the pages leading up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, a section that Hickox handles very well indeed.
 
Arthur Davies sings Gerontius. Although he’s done much concert work he’s associated primarily with the operatic repertory and an operatic style is not inappropriate in this work. Much of his singing, especially in Part I, is full-throated, almost Italianate and he has all the vocal heft you could wish for. He also has a seemingly limitless supply of breath, which enables him to sing solos such as the ‘Sanctus fortis’ in great long phrases. However, to my ears he doesn’t display the vulnerability of the dying Gerontius and as Part I unfolded I came to feel that he doesn’t show much identification with the character he is portraying. In Part II he retains the open-throated quality of his voice yet he fines it down to a more intimate level for the dialogue with the Angel and that’s very commendable. The opening of ‘Take me away’ is taken, ardently, in a single, thrilling unbroken phrase, something that not all tenors manage, and he gives a good account of that last big solo. In the last analysis, however, I don’t think that his Gerontius, for all its merits, quite matches the leading exponents of the role, especially in terms of characterisation and feeling for the text.
 
Felicity Palmer began her illustrious career as a soprano and had only converted to mezzo roles, I believe, about five years before this recording. With that in mind I was mildly surprised that there were a few occasions when I didn’t find her top notes completely convincing. Her singing is impressive and expressive - she’s poised and eloquent at ‘A presage falls upon thee’, for instance and she gives a very good account of the Farewell. However, at certain key points, such as ‘There was a mortal’ I don’t feel she brings the same level of intensity to the music as, say, Sarah Connolly or Dame Janet Baker. Her portrayal of the Angel impressed me but didn’t move me.
 
Gwynne Howell is an imposing vocal presence, both as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. I think his sound and style suits the latter role particularly well; perhaps one looks for more in the way of reassurance and dignity from the Priest rather than command? Nonetheless, both his contributions are notable ones.
 
The playing of the LSO is superb throughout, as I indicated earlier and their playing and, indeed, the whole performance, is captured in a trademark Chandos recording, which has ample presence and power yet also reveals an abundance of detail.
 
I’m glad to have heard this Hickox recording of Gerontius at long last and it has much to commend it. I don’t think anyone who buys it will be seriously disappointed. However, I don’t believe that it disturbs the existing ‘pecking order’ in which Elder’s Hallé recording now ranks first among modern versions while the Barbirolli and Sargent (1945) versions still illuminate Elgar’s great work in a very special way.
 
John Quinn  

See also review by Ralph Moore

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