Top positive review
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"But hark! a grand mysterious harmony"
on 10 May 2009
I remember seeing Elder conducting the Halle in this piece in a televised BBC Prom concert a few years ago and being profoundly moved by it. Unfortunately, I was away when they performed it in Manchester last July but this splendid studio recording, made over the following days with the same team, almost makes up for it.
Elder draws on all of his experience as both a noted Elgar and opera conductor to deliver an intelligently conceived and perfectly paced interpretation which, for me, proves without doubt that it is possible to make Elgar's late-Victorian grandeur relevant in the 21st century without resorting to wilful distortions of tempo and exaggerated phrasing. Compare the end of Elder's great "Praise to the Holiest" chorus with the ridiculously accellerated recent version by Oramo and the CBSO, for example.
It is so easy for less empathetic conductors to fall into the trap of presenting Part II of this work as a series of tableaux or, worse still, as three great choruses linked by solo recitatives. Elder sidesteps these pitfalls and continually integrates and progresses the drama without it ever feeling rushed, never losing sight of the entire musical structure.
Overall, he shaves about two minutes off each part compared to the classic Halle / Barbirolli recording and yet he somehow feels less driven and demonic, totally confident in the music's ability to present itself.
The Halle themselves are in a different class to their 1964 incarnation. I personally think it's a crime that this superb orchestra is not more widely recorded. This music is in the Halle's blood and they play with real panache throughout, exposing details in the score that you possibly never knew were there.
The Halle Choir matches them every step of the way, combining clarity, precision and passion with a highly professional musicality.
They are all helped by the wonderful acoustic of Bridgewater Hall and sound engineers who know how to exploit it; this is far and away the best-sounding Gerontius I've heard (my beloved old Barbirolli set sounds harsh and, dare I say it, uncouth by comparison). I've had my hi-fi volume up to unprecedented levels with these discs and the sound never distorts, even at the greatest climaxes. The Bridgewater's splendid Marcussen organ is caught particularly well, breathing deeply and resonantly in all the right places without ever overwhelming the orchestra (try the Prelude to Part I and the terrifying crescendo in Part II before "the glance of God", which will have the hairs up on the back of your neck!).
The three soloists are a characterful bunch. Terfel certainly gives quite a forceful performance of both of his roles but I'm more than happy to hear a ringing delivery of the Priest's Sub Venite after years of living with the wobbly and unidiomatic Kim Borg on the Barbirolli. Paul Groves is a wonderful and properly three-dimensional Gerontius, possibly the best we've had, in fact. Intelligently and beautifully sung throughout, he brings out all of Gerontius' heroic defiance, fear, wonder... his anguished outcry of "Take me away" in Part II brings a tear to my eye every time. And finally Alice Coote... a new Angel for our times. Her "Softly and gently" is heart-meltingly beautiful and crowns an unforgettable interpretation. Every generation needs its heroes and, whilst Janet Baker has been the benchmark in this role for many years, I think Alice Coote can carry the torch high as we move into a new era. I certainly look forward to hearing much more of her. As indeed I will, as I'm seeing this same cast (apart from Terfel) at the Edinburgh Festival this summer, and I've never looked forward to a concert so much!
Whether you're new to this work or know it and love it as much as I do, this beautiful, dramatic, moving recording is whole-heartedly recommended. One of my very favourite recordings of any work.