One of the Great Recordings
Johannes Climacus | Beverly, Massachusetts | 02/02/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Barbirolli's *Dream of Gerontius* surely deserves its place among the "great recordings of the century"; EMI was not indulging in marketing hyperbole on this occasion.
If you have not yet discovered Elgar's oratorio masterpiece, then here is a golden opportunity. Barbirolli is clearly in deepest accord both with the sublime vision expressed in Newman's didactic poem and with Elgar's richly variegated response to it. His tempi are inclined toward the expansive; some passages, such as the "chorus of demons" in Part II, or Gerontius's near-death maunderings toward the beginning of Part I, might have gained from being given greater dramatic urgency. Otherwise, Barbirolli's interpretation is the only one I have heard that fully conveys both the harrowing and the uplifting qualities of the work.
Both choir and orchestra respond with total dedication to Barbirolli's inspired direction. Dame Janet Baker is beyond praise in the role of the Angel; be prepared to shed tears as she bids farewell to her purgatory-bound charge toward the conclusion of the work. Richard Lewis's portrayal of Gerontius is justly regarded as a classic, even though his distinctively reedy timbre and occasionally cloying sentimentality may take some getting used to. Better too much sentiment than too much reserve in this particular role, however. Only Kim Borg in the dual role of Priest and Angel of the Agony disappoints; his woolly timbre and sometimes indistinct English diction are minor liabilities, however, in what is otherwise a transcendent *Gerontius.*
Over the years I have heard many fine versions of this work. Sargent's classic 1945 account is aesthetically, if not sonically, a formidable rival to Barbirolli; his later monaural LP version is less convincing overall. Boult is more direct than Barbirolli and may appeal to listeners who don't want to be wrung out emotionally; but I can't get used to Nicolai Gedda's unidiomatic rendition of the title role. Britten is hard-hitting and dramatic; a distinctive vision of the work, even if he misses its contemplative dimension. Rattle has his virtues, including an ability to convey expressive nuance and a loving attention to textural detail. Finally, I would strongly recommend a DVD of an earth-shattering performance at St. Paul's Cathedral under the direction of Andrew Davis. Philip Langridge gives the performance of a lifetime (or after-lifetime, if you prefer) as Gerontius, and the camera work is, happily, unobtrusive (something that can't always be taken for granted in video recordings of concert performances).
In sum then, Barbirolli is your best bet if you are unfamiliar with *Gerontius* and want to have just one audio-only version in your collection. As a performance it has not yet been surpassed, and the remastered recording is as firmly focused and atmospheric as one could hope for, given the vintage. Urgently recommended."