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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

RECORD KEEPING | New Elgar Release Traces Memories Back To Canada

By Paul E. Robinson on November 15, 2017

As featured on a new recording by Daniel Barenboim, we take a look at the Canadian history of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with the help of Toronto Symphony archivist, John Sharpe.
As featured on a new recording, we take a look at the Canadian history of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

Although Canada gained its internal independence from Britain in 1867, the British monarch remains our head of state. The ties between Britain and Canada are close, and the cultural roots of English Canada owe a great deal to our British heritage. Up until about the 1950s, our musical life was dominated by British music and by Canadian composers who had been influenced by them, which perhaps explains why the music of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was more likely to be embraced in Canada than in the United States.

With these thoughts in mind, and having grown up in Toronto myself in the 1950s, I assumed that a major choral work such as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was always a part of the basic repertoire of the Toronto Symphony and the Mendelssohn Choir, but to be sure I contacted John Sharpe, an Archival and Research Assistant with the TSO. As usual, he was very helpful and after combing through his files, and came up with some facts that surprised me: The Dream of Gerontius had its first performance in Birmingham in 1900 and its first TSO performance — in Montreal! — March 27, 1911; the conductor was Elgar himself; the performance was part of the “Musical Festival of the Empire”; there were repeat performances in Toronto a week later.

According to the TSO archives, there wasn’t another performance of The Dream of Gerontius until 1946 — an astonishing 35 years! Then there was another gap of 29 years until Andrew Davis programmed it in 1975. Davis brought the work forward again in 1988, and Peter Oundjian conducted it in 2014, almost exactly three years ago. That’s it. A mere five performances or sets of performances over a period of 106 years; one might have guessed there would be much more than that.

The Dream of Gerontius, based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, is an oratorio for three solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Part I depicts Gerontius as a dying man and Part II concerns his soul’s journey to the hereafter. The text and the spirit of the text are based on Newman’s Catholicism, and as such, initially caused some consternation in the Anglican Church. Whatever one’s faith, or lack thereof, one can appreciate the work as a deeply moving reflection on death and dying, on human hopes and fears. The music is often sublime in its expression and several times rises to climaxes of overwhelming power.

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Angel). Andrew Staples (Gerontius). Thomas Hampson (The Priest/Angel of the Agony). Staatsopernchor Berlin. RIAS Kammerchor. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim. Decca Classics 483 1585 (2 CDs). Total Time: 93:57.
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Angel). Andrew Staples (Gerontius). Thomas Hampson (The Priest/Angel of the Agony). Staatsopernchor Berlin. RIAS Kammerchor. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim. Decca Classics 483 1585 (2 CDs). Total Time: 93:57.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim has championed Elgar’s music since he was a young man and his most recent Elgar recordings are some of the finest ever made. In The Dream of Gerontius, Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin play the music with a range of expression that can only be rivalled by that in the Elgar recordings of Sir John Barbirolli. While many British conductors have played Elgar with a sort of musical stiff upper lip, Barbirolli (1899-1970) and now Barenboim approach the music in a more personal way and are not afraid to dig deeper and to widen the expressive range of the score. I have never heard the orchestral Prelude played with such eloquence as on this recording.

Unfortunately, a successful recording of The Dream of Gerontius requires not only a conductor who really understands the music and a first-class orchestra; it also needs a superb choir — a very large one at that — and three outstanding soloists. The choral work in this performance is very good but not exceptional, and the soloists are all more than a little disappointing. I understand that tenor Jonas Kaufmann was Barenboim’s choice for the role of Gerontius, and that he cancelled due to illness. One can only imagine what this great artist might have brought to the project.

In his stead, we have on this recording the much lighter voice of Andrew Staples, and a performance that is not much more than competent. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang the part of the Angel in Peter Oundjian’s 2014 Toronto performances and also appeared in the Andrew Davis video from St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1998 (Kultur D4082). She is magnificent in the 1998 Davis performance of the work, but not here. At 59, she sings with a wide vibrato and a lacklustre sound. As for Thomas Hampson (The Priest/Angel of the Agony), this new recording suggests that his best years are also behind him.

Of the number of excellent recordings of The Dream of Gerontius in existence, several have been conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Another that deserves special mention is a 1947 broadcast from Rome, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting and Jon Vickers as Gerontius (Archipel ARPCD0403).Vickers had the sheer power the role demands as well as an equally necessary sensitivity to phrasing and text; he was an ideal interpreter of the role. Strangely, based on Jeannie Williams’ research in her book Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life, he never sang it again in his career.

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius with Daniel Barenboim is available at amazon.ca and iTunes.

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Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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