Elgar from America, Vol. 3 – Sir John Barbirolli, NY Philharmonic – Ariadne

by | Jul 26, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Barbirolli’s historic rendering of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius”…

ELGAR from America, Vol. 3: The Dream of Gerontius; Introduction and Allegro for Strings;  The Saga of King Olaf (Excerpts) – New York Philharmonic/ Sir John Barbirolli – SOMM Ariadne 5015-2 (2 CDs: 59:50; 58:03, full content list below) [Distr. By Naxos] *****:

Almost immediately as a result of Elgar’s success with his Enigma Variations of 1899, the Birmingham Music Festival approached him to write a new choral work, one that would propel Elgar’s fame into the international sphere. Elgar chose to set a poem (1865) by Catholic theologian John Henry Newman as a work for voices and orchestra in two parts, with the poem’s relating the odyssey of a pious man’s soul from his moment of death to his judgment before God and then settling into Purgatory. That 1900 debut under the direction of Hans Richter, under-rehearsed and led by an unsympathetic chorus master, proved an abject failure. Happily, a representative from the Lower Rhine Festival recognized the mastery of Elgar’s choral work—Elgar systematically refused the designation “oratorio”—and scheduled a German premiere in 1901. American audiences experienced the work in Chicago, under the auspices of the Apollo Musical Club, 23 March 1903. Then to New York City, to be conducted by Frank Damrosch..By the time Gerontius arrived in London, there had been nineteen world performances.

SOMM restores, with Volume III of Elgar in America, courtesy of master record producer Lani Spahr, the 25 January 1959 performance from Carnegie Hall, led by Sir John Barbirolli, who had been the New York Philharmonic’s music director from 1936-1942, after the departure of Arturo Toscanini. Gerontius had not been heard in New York since 1932, and Barbirolli specifically selected tenor Richard Lewis (1914-1990) for the role with which he became identified, along with Canadian vocalists, contralto Maureen Forrester (1930-2010), and Morley Meredith (1922-2000), bass-baritone. Elgar himself spoke of John Barbirolli as “a rising hope of music in England for whom I have admiration and in whose work I have confidence.” Their relationship, built on mutual trust and respect, led to many concerts and recordings that have defined much of the canon in British music.

Gerontius proceeds as an uninterrupted drama, not divided into distinct, musical numbers. In this sense, the work resembles a Wagner opus. Part I depicts Gerontius as Everyman, a good man dying in his bed. With commiserating friends gathered round, Gerontius feels his soul’s separating from his body. The final hour has arrived, Novissima hora est, and a priest sends Gerontius on his journey into the afterlife, Proficiscere, anima Christiana. Gerontius awakenns in Part II in his new identity, the Soul, and he encounters his guardian angel, who leads him to the House of Judgment. A chorus of demons and a chorus of angels (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”) confront Gerontius. The Angel of the Agony offers a prayer of intercession, so Soul may “go before my judge” with serene confidence. A hugely imperious chord allows Gerontius to meet God and receive judgment, The Angel guides Gerontius down to Purgatory, promising to return in the morning to lead him into Heaven, intoned by “Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul.”

The opening Prelude, set in F Major, establishes a blissful tone, much in the spirit of Wagner’s Parsifal, but interrupted by startling, dramatically resonant chords and passing dissonances that suggest mortal strife. These turbulent sounds resolve into a mood of acceptance, moving to the low strings to set the anguished context of Gerontius’ death-bed. Gerontius enters with four successive arias, from “Jesu Maria, I am near to death” to “I can no more.” Lewis’ diction remains clear, and the choral voices, intoning, “Holy Mary, pray for me” in counterpoint emerge in poignant harmony. Gerontius temporarily regains some force of will with “Rouse thee, my fainting soul.” The Philharmonic brass and tympani well underline the strings and chorus. Intoning in Latin, Gerontius pleads a miserere, a declaration of his faith whose vocal tessitura proves demanding. Lewis’ diminuendo on the words “Holy Ghost” impresses. The last of his outcries, about “that masterful negation” of his powers, incites the orchestra to rebellion. Lewis’ “Nobilissima. . .I would fain would sleep” rends the heart. Now is the scene prepared for the arrival of Morley Meredith’s Priest, who brings both the dire portent and soaring affirmation of Death and Transfiguration.

Part II of Gerontius fills out the notion of a re-awakened, refreshed soul, free from mortal coils. Maureen Forrester appears in the first of her four major arias, here, in thee duet, “My work is done,” Forrester, whose work in Mahler remains in high esteem, brings a plaintive sweetness to her part of The Angel, even if her voice does not project the smoky mystery Kathleen Ferrier possessed. Doubt and fear of judgment still must be abolished, and the next series of scenes addresses earthly anxiety so it may be dispelled. On the word “dissonance,” the Chorus releases the demons of doubt and fear, those “Low born clods of brute earth” whose downward urges to the Abyss must be overcome. The Soul, Gerontius’ reborn incarnation, with the aid of The Angel, passes beyond torment, and the Chorus of Angelicals, in high register with harp support, rejoices in his victory, “Praise to the Holiest,” what The Soul compares to “the sound of the summer wind.” With all fear defeated, the music begins the last phase, the exalted, even convulsive segment, “And now the threshold.” The remainder of this magnum opus wends its way through religious confirmation, overflowing with sentiments of mercy and disdain for past irresolution. Guilt has been purged from the spirit, and The Soul, through Jesus, may embrace his Original Innocence. Maureen Forrester’s voice achieves a glorious lister for the final “Softly and gently” conclusion to a joyful voyage of the spirit, and a great moment for conductor Barbirolli’s historic return to New York.

The 1896 Saga of King Olaf, recorded “live” 1 April 1956 and issued on a Columbia record (ML 5048), is a cantata for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, full choir and orchestra, based on the epic poem by H W Longfellow, arranged by H A Ackworth. Comprised of a prologue, nine scenes and an epilogue, it tells the story of the life, battles and eventual death of King Olaf, a Norse crusader in his own country. The work contains engaging melodies, which many regard as his best pre-Enigma composition. The forceful first scene, “The Challenge of Thor” proveis mighty and appealing, while the a cappella “Torrents in Summer” brings the work to a moving climax.

The entire SOMM set opens with the string work, Introduction and Allegro of 1905, a piece whose lovely melodies and polyphonic texture first came to me by way Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, Barbirolli drives the piece hard in this live, sizzling performance from 3 January 1959, part of a program that included his Brahms B-flat Piano Concerto with Gina Bachauer, a collaboration we hope to find preserved by someone for recorded posterity.

ELGAR from America, Vol III, Sir John Barbirolli and New York Philharmonic:

Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47;
Two Choral Scenes from The Saga of King Olaf, Op. 30
The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

Richard Lewis – Gerontius, The Soul
Maureen Forrester – The Angel
Morley Meredith – The Priest;
Mormon Tabernacle Choir – Chorus of Angelicals
Spencer Cornwall, cond. (King Olaf)
John Corigliano, violin
Leopold Rybb, violin
William Lincer, viola
Laszlo Varga, cello
Alexander Schreiner, organ

–Gary Lemco

Album Cover for Elgar from America, Vol 3, Sir John Barbirolli

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