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ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius

CD Button Shacklock; Vickers, Nowakowski. Orchestra Sinfonica e coro di Roma della RAI, Barbirolli. Archipel ARPCD 0403 (2)

Recordings Gerontius Cover 216

THE OBVIOUS REASON FOR THIS REISSUE of this 1957 Radio Italiana broadcast is the presence of the late Jon Vickers as Gerontius, a part he never recorded commercially. Vickers is indeed compelling, but despite some excellent solo singing and the sweeping conception of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, this performance falls short of bringing Elgar’s grandiose, often overwritten choral work—the composer objected to calling it an oratorio—to life. The RAI orchestra and chorus just can’t cut it. Vowels are impure, textures are muddy and too many instrumental passages are ragged. It doesn’t help that the recorded sound is constricted—even by 1950s standards. 

The libretto of The Dream of Gerontius, by Cardinal Newman, is complex and arcane. Newman was a convert in a time that Catholicism was widely censured in England, and this poem, which depicts a dying man’s vision of entering heaven with high-flown Victorian imagery, had a theological agenda. Elgar had a musical agenda of sorts, applying Wagnerian principals (which were then “modern music”) to his own work—a Briton’s answer to Parsifal, perhaps, although much of the score is equally indebted to Berlioz. 

For this collector, the most rewarding element in the RAI set is the superb vocalism of the under-recorded British contralto Constance Shacklock (1913-99), best-known outside Britain from her singing of Brangaene’s lines in a magnificent 1949 recording of the Tristan love duet with Flagstad and Svanholm. Her voice was a force of nature: an old-school British contralto with low notes like a cello and a thrillingly dramatic high extension. As the soul’s guardian angel, she phrases here with exquisite legato and impeccable diction. 

It’s good to have a voice of Wagnerian dimensions for Gerontius’s music, and Vickers delineates his lines with heartfelt expressivity. He begins tentatively, straining for high notes and resorting to head voice for the softer passages, warming up as the piece goes on. The duet with Shacklock as his guardian angel, early in Part Two, is quite gorgeous, and his stentorian delivery of the heroic “Take me away” near the end is thrilling. 

The third soloist, Marian Nowakowski, is not in their class. As the priest who sends Gerontius on his journey, and later as the angel of the agony who helps him towards Purgatory, the Polish bass declaims his lines with unfocused tone and monochrome aridity. Vickers fans and Gerontius fanatics will want this performance as memorabilia, but there are several superior performances on CD—including a classic 1965 studio version conducted by Barbirolli, and a spiffy BBC production from 2014 conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. —Robert Croan 

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