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ELGAR: Sea Pictures; The Dream of Gerontius

Sir Andrew Davis
Audiophile Audition

Two of Elgar's best choral works written back to back in wonderful performances

By Daniel Coombs 

Here are two of Sir Edward Elgar’s best known and most respected choral masterpieces in outstanding performances. I think that, regrettably, Elgar’s choral catalogue and, certainly, the oratorios are not nearly as well-known as most of his purely orchestral masterworks; most notably the ‘Enigma’ Variations or the Cello Concerto. However, the Dream of Gerontius is better known and more often performed than its counterparts, The Kingdom or The Apostles.

I have always found the back story on The Dream of Gerontius fascinating and not widely known. The text is from a poem written by Cardinal John Newman (1801-1890), a convert from the Anglican Church. His work, published in a Jesuit magazine in England, is about an elderly man, Gerontius, who – on his deathbed – has visions of Purgatory and learns the path to redemption and heaven.

It is said that the initial performance was not really good at all in Elgar’s estimation and he was very upset by this for a long time. However, reviews and live testimony declared it to be one of Elgar’s masterworks; and so it is. This recording is one of the strongest I have heard, with an orchestra and conductor that clearly understands this most “English” of composers and the rich choral tradition that this piece comes from. I have heard Gerontius once live many years ago in Chicago and have two other recordings, but this is my new favorite rendition and all of Elgar’s music remains a personal favorite as well.

A real treat for me was the Opus 37 Sea Pictures, written just before The Dream of Gerontius and but two years earlier. I am not nearly as familiar with this very attractive song cycle for contralto and orchestra (sung here by the amazing mezzo Sarah Connolly) as the oratorios. The five songs that comprise the text to the Sea Pictures come from separate sources, each chosen for its reflections on the emotions and atmosphere of the lifestyles that depend in the sea. The poets, themselves, are a bit obscure, but for Elizabeth Barrett Browning – and include Roden Noel, Caroline Alice Elgar (the composer’s wife), Richard Garnett and Adam Lindsey Gordon. The words are chosen well to convey a range of senses of the sea life as tranquil and noble but also awe-inspiring and to be feared. Sarah Connolly’s performance is splendid and this piece is the essential addition to a genre typified by Berlioz, in his Les nuits d’été, that Elgar sought to emulate.

I think fans of Elgar’s music, such as myself, should really like this disc. Andrew Davis is a superb interpreter of Elgar and the performances are wonderful. Even those who really are not acquainted with these works or with Elgar’s output ought to find much to admire. The sound quality is terrific and the packaging is at Chandos’ usual high quality and class. Highly recommended!