A Crop of Recordings XVI: Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius and the First and Second Symphonies played by the Berliner Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim
ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius ● Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Angel); Andrew Staples (Gerontius); Thomas Hampson (Priest/Angel of the Agony); Staatskapelle Berlin; Staatsopernchor; RIAS Kammerchor ● DECCA 4831585 (Streaming audio: 93:00) Live: Berlin, 9/2016 https://app.napster.com/artist/daniel-barenboim/album/elgar-the-dream-of-gerontius-op38
If Gerontius died today, it would probably be at a hospital with no Cardinal Newman to record his passing and no Sir Edward Elgar to create his beautiful dream of a masterpiece. And, one supposes too, there’d be no Daniel Barenboim to bring the work to Germany so powerfully as he does here, details and quibbles to follow. We don’t immortalize last words and thoughts the way we used to.
It has taken time for this piece to the enter the repertory, and only now is it coming into its own in central Europe. This is not just because of its Englishness, but most likely because Gerontius contains a great deal of quiet, nearly static and introspective music. More importantly, the structural logic of its paragraphing and direction are not immediately evident. Gerontius isn’t quite an oratorio. It isn’t really a song cycle, either. It is not a theater piece, certainly; virtually nothing happens on stage. Emotionally, it’s closest to being a requiem. But only a few elements of a religious mass are brought into play: the Kyrie, for instance. And you could argue that the immense demonic fugue in Part 2 is the Dies Irae.
But even if we think of the work religiously (and it is, of course, a Roman Catholic piece breaking ground in Protestant England), it confronts an essential problem which all big sung works face in the attempt to hold an audience’s attention: you can’t compose much fast music, or nobody will understand what is being said! Many a vocal/orchestral piece can make listeners squirm, because it doesn’t move forward quickly enough. So it is essential in choral works that motion be achieved, where it does occur.
I am happy to report that Daniel Barenboim remains a fairly swift Elgarian, which is how he began fifty years ago, (and that his new CDs of the two symphonies display mature insights within fully normal tempo bounds, as well.) There is no previous release from him of Gerontius with which to compare this performance, but Barenboim’s approach is energized and would work perfectly well, if only it had been recorded with an English chorus. As it is, there are some fascinating cultural differences and slightly bizarre anomalies to point out.
First things first, the singers: Andrew Staples is thin-voiced and definitely not old, as Gerontius. I found him ultimately grating to listen to. In puffier, more pompous moments, he pronounces “Jesu” as “cheese-you.’ Thomas Hampson is fine as the Priest/Angel of Agony, though both male singers sound vaguely German in the English language. It’s something about the way the chorus sings with an accent and the way Staples and Hampson catch the rhythm of this. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is appealing, but I think her vibrato a little too wide, as I frequently do with singers. That’s my prejudice. In any case, I somewhat prefer Sarah Connolly on the recent Andrew Davis Chandos set. Her voice flows richer and more velvety.
The Berlin Staatskapelle play well throughout, except at the climax of the hellish fugue, which is supposed to wind down over a series of massive timpani beats, as the Angel tells of the underworld and the low instruments bring up the “hideous purring” of the devils. Unhappily, the timpani are barely audible until halfway through this critical moment, just the basses chugging roughly. The score has everyone playing ff and the timpani only f, so Barenboim is technically correct. But it is usual to play the passage for more hard-hitting drama.
If I did want to be uncharitable, it would be over the chorus, well integrated with the orchestra, but which sings with operatic vibrato. English choral sound verges on pure alabaster. American choral sonority is heavy cream (think Robert Shaw). But neither usually sings with heavy, quavering vibrato. It sounds quite unnatural to me here, though not everywhere. The Kyrie is soft and pure, but not so beautiful as the LSO Chorus in Richard Hickox’s performance.
This brings us to the recorded sound. It’s fully consistent with usual Staatskapelle microphone perspective: everything up a bit close. The result is powerful and detailed most of the time and usually satisfying. Bass is full and floor-shaking. But when the violins try a bit of portamento, it sometimes records as an awkward squeak.
I don’t actually have a quarrel with this release. All of the above is within normal bounds, and this 2016 live performance is said to have had majestic impact in Germany. One is grateful for the success Barenboim has had there, now occupying a commanding heights position in German music not unlike that of his youthful idol, Wilhelm Furtwängler. If anyone can bring Elgar to Germany, give him institutional gravitas and get the public to think of him as German, it’s Daniel Barenboim! More power to him. But I suspect there will always be an England.1
ELGAR Symphony No. 1 • Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Staatskapelle Berlin • DECCA 4789353 (51:23) Live: Berlin 2015
About forty years ago, Sir Andrew Davis complained to me that the Berlin Philharmonic had trouble sight-reading Elgar in rehearsal, were unfamiliar with the Enigma Variations and had been thrown off by the English composer’s tendency to syncopate in odd places. Those insular days are surely over–at least where Germany is concerned. One isn’t so certain about a number of other countries, of course. I have yet to hear an Elgar cycle from France—or be sure I wanted to. But no such caveats here.
This is Daniel Barenboim’s second go-round recording the Elgar First. It’s mere seconds different in timing from his early seventies London Philharmonic LP and extremely similar in outlook. He still strides forth at a good clip. But there was always a Wagnerian in Barenboim waiting to come out. And he approaches Elgar now almost as part of the Ring. He’s had forty years to develop that flowing sense of the luminously eerie which so suits Wagner—learned from his conducting hero, Furtwängler. Barenboim has mastered the feeling well. But one wonders at the glass through which he sees Elgar so darkly….
Compared with the Second Symphony, there aren’t many opportunities in the First to brood. But much of the slow movement and its barely audible conclusion is a deeply felt hush here. It dreams and evokes. Even better is the middle of the Finale, where the motto theme, now accompanied by harps, becomes a swaying heartfelt consolation licked by tiny cries of pain. In his youth, Barenboim tended to overuse portamento at moments like that. But he gets it just right here.
The Berlin Staatskapelle, of course, is not an English orchestra. Its tone is dark, string oriented and a touch opaque. The motto theme sounds a bit as though it has a teutonic head-cold. I miss the golden triumph of the London Philharmonic horns, so effectively part of the Elgar sound we’ve come to know in performances by Boult, Solti, and Barenboim himself. Indeed, this is a sad, dark performance—in too many places, perhaps.
That said, there is many an insight here. And Barenboim is not slow. He’s just incredibly quiet in places. His fifty-one minutes are the norm. And he has a fine, aggressive timpanist to punctuate important moments in the outer movement development sections and hammer things home viciously in the second. The sound picture is exactly what we usually get from the Staatskapelle—up close, warm and a touch dry. And Elgar? Well, my naturalized German father always did insist England’s best composers were German!
ELGAR Symphony No. 2 ● Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Staatskapelle Berlin ● DECCA 00028947866794 (Streaming audio: 56:02) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=00028947866794
Sir Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony is a deceptively “Straussian” piece of music, striding and leaping its way into being as it does with confidence, swagger, and an easy sense of lah-de-dah. That’s what Elgar wanted us to think. He’d finally reached tweedy, ceremonial standing in English life and would pretend nothing more taxing than the racing form interested him. Lapsing that, Elgar was perfectly happy to speak of his new symphony as memorial to the recently departed King Edward VII. The second movement, indeed, is a funeral march set in motion by the tolling of bells. But all this is surface.
Beneath the sweep and official dignity of Elgar’s music lies a tormented, deep-feeling, inward-searching, very personal Elgar audiences have come to love. That quality is powerfully present in the quieter moments of this symphony and in Daniel Barenboim’s new recording of it. Barenboim has always been an eager Elgarian, and never slow in basic tempo. The Berlin Staatskapelle take off here at a good clip, if not so swiftly as Solti used to in London and Chicago, where Barenboim surely acquired some of his Elgar influences. But Barenboim favors tempo flexibility in the Wagnerian manner more than Solti did, and that propensity serves him well here.
Midway through the first movement is found the symphony’s emotional heart, or at least the set-up for all emotion to follow: a creepy passage five minutes in, half darkness, half pathetic yearning and cry for help. It gradually transforms itself into a slow pulsating menace which returns in the Scherzo as pounding migraine. The symphony is repeatedly like that: of this world for a few moments, confident and bright; the next moment tormented and fearful, replete with wounded innocence and sad knowing.
When Daniel Barenboim first recorded this symphony for CBS with the London Philharmonic, it was a young man’s exaggerations which stood out, particularly some excessive portamento in the funeral march. The climax of that movement had a breast-beating quality that was excessive. I’m happy to say any tendency to emotional distortion is gone. Barenboim has learned in the years since how to get slower and faster in Elgar without losing either proportion or one’s attention, and while the coda of the symphony, itself, is even slower than he played it with the LPO, I find nothing artificial in this reading at all. Instead, we get some amazingly quiet, rapt string playing and forty-five years of heartfelt insight. Elsewhere there is plenty of forward motion, including the famous fugato passage in the finale. Here Barenboim lengthens the notorious “trumpet scream” by an extra bar, as so many conductors cannot resist doing. It’s very effective. (This, Bruckner lovers will smirk, is about the only textural problem to be found in the Elgar symphonies.)
Decca has supplied the very same Staatskapelle acoustic for this release which appears on most recordings I’m aware of from this orchestra: up-close, fractionally dry, warm sound with a solid bass. You hear everything, and the Staatskapelle do themselves proud. Listeners seeking a slightly more traditional reading in even better sound should be happy with Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic on Naxos. But there is something lovely in the way Daniel Barenboim, now at the pinnacle of his career, turns once again to the composer who meant so much to him early on.
- Ironically, following the disastrous premiere at the Birmingham Festival, in October 1900, the first successful performances of Gerontius were in Düsseldorf on I December 1901 and May 1902 under the baton of Julius Buths, conductor of the Lower Rhine Festival, where it won the favor of Richard Strauss, who called Elgar the “first English progressivist.” Elgar’s German-born friend, August Jaeger had brought Buths along to Birmingham, who was deeply impressed, enough to translate it and bring it to Germany.—ed. ↩