The Dream of Gerontius was first performed in 1900.
Please allow me, in the first instance, to list the versions under review and of which I have a copy.
In each case, Gerontius is named first, then The Angel , The Priest /The Angel of the Agony, The Chorus, The Orchestra and finally the conductor. Dates of recordings are in brackets and are given in chronological order. They are complete and in stereo unless otherwise stated. Not all versions are currently available.
1/ D'Oisly, Butt, N/A, New Queen's Hall, New Queen's Hall, Wood (1916, limited extracts) Mono
2/ Wilson, Balfour, Heyner, Royal Choral Society, Royal Albert Hall, Elgar (February 1927, incomplete.) Mono
3/ Davies, Balfour, Stevens, Three Choirs, LSO, Elgar (September 1927, incomplete) Mono
4/ Nash, Ripley, Noble(Priest), Walker(The Angel of the Agony), Huddersfield, Royal Liverpool, Sargent (1945) Mono
5/ Lewis, Thomas, Cameron,Huddersfield, Royal Liverpool, Sargent (1954) Mono
6/ Vickers, Shacklock, Nowkowski, Italian Radio, Italian Radio, Barbirolli (1957, Mono)
7/ Lewis, Baker, Borg, Halle/Sheffield/Ambrosian, Halle, Barbirolli (1964)
8/ Pears, Minton, Shirley-Quirk, London Symphony/King's Cambridge, LSO, Britten (1972)
9/ Gedda, Watts, Lloyd, London Phil./John Alldis, New Philharmonia, Boult (1976)
10/ Tear, Hodgson, Luxon, Scottish National, Scottish National, Gibson (1976)
11/ Mitchinson, Baker, Shirley-Quirk, CBSO Chorus, CBSO, Rattle (1986)
12/ Davies, Palmer, Howell, LSO Chorus, LSO, Hickox (1988)
13/ Rolfe Johnson, Wyn-Rogers, George, Royal Liverpool/Huddersfield, Roval Liverpool, Handley (1993)
14/ Kendall, Fryer, Best, Bournemouth, Bournemouth, Hill (1996)
2/ Langridge, Wyn-Rogers, Miles, BBCSO Chorus, BBCSO, Andrew Davis (1997)
At the outset, let me say that there is no quick fix as to which version to buy. Each has its charms and its let-downs.
The version with brief extracts sung by Dame Clara Butt has clear historical interest. The sound is remarkably good for 1916. Those conducted by Sir Edward himself are self- recommending.
Sargent's first recording was in Huddersfield in 1945. It was the first complete version of the work. The use of a different artist for the roles of The Priest and The Angel of the Agony works well. Heddle Nash and Gladys Ripley are both on fine form and one does not have to make many allowances for the sound. The Chorus Master, Herbert Bardgett, was this author's music master at school.
Of the two Sargent versions, I find the one above preferable; the1945 recording has the better soloists and finds Sargent truly inspired.
Perhaps it is unfair to include the Italian version for it was pirated from Italian Radio but it was available for a time in Britain, elsewhere for all I know. That, in Jon Vickers, it has the best Gerontius on record is not, in my view, in doubt. Barbirolli's coaxing of his Italian forces can be clearly heard let alone felt. Indeed, it may be the only time in his career that Vickers sang a duet with his conductor. If Constance Shacklock sounds a little old- fashioned, that is not intended as a put-down.Marian Nowkowski is in excellent voice and the Italian Choir and Orchestra do their best.
If Vickers is the best Gerontius, Barbirolli's studio version has the outstanding Angel in Janet Baker. For this listener's taste, Richard Lewis sounds too English. There is not enough fervour or power. Whilst not as unsatisfactory as some people say, Kim Borg is not the ideal bass/baritone. Barbirolli conducts with passion.
Not noted for his Elgar, Benjamin Britten conducts with all the understanding of a fellow composer. Yvonne Minton is splendid and John Shirley-Quirk equally good. Everything hinges on whether or not you can take Peter Pears' Gerontius. I cannot; in addition to that, his tone is rough. Had he been on top form, his voice is not that of the Italianate tenor for which Elgar asked. However, if you can take that reservation on board, Britten's conducting is superb.
It is not often that I really disagree with The Penguin Stereo Guide but Boult's Dream of Gerontius is an exception. Nicolai Gedda is in prime voice. His is the Italian tenor for which Sir Edward asked even though he is Swedish. It is not for nothing that he is known as Mr United Nations. However, whilst his English is flawless, it is clear that he is not in his element in the role. Boult's much praised conducting sounds a wee bit staid. Helen Watts is superb and Robert Lloyd is my favourite Priest/Angel of the Agony.
The Scottish version was the first to get on to CD. All three singers are good but the real snag is Gibson's conducting. He simply never gets inside the work. To conduct Elgar well you must be flexible, be aware of the subtle nuances. Gibson is really awful.
As a version to recommend, Rattle's does not come into the frame. John Mitchinson's vibrato is tiresome and Janet Baker, perhaps the Angel of the century, is cruelly exposed in her top notes by close miking. She should never have accepted that the disc be released if the Dame had that power. Even that most reliable of singers, John Shirley-Quirk, is not at his best. It is possible that all three singers were past their best when the recording was made. Simon Rattle does not sound as involved as usual.The Choir is outstanding but is not helped by some of Rattle's eccentric tempi.
Hickox has ravishing sound on his 1988 recording. Arthur Davies is not my idea of Gerontius and this author cannot, when hearing Felicity Palmer, forget her memorable performance as Katisha on E.N.O.'s disc of The Mikado. He, for one, does not wish to be welcomed into the next world by such a battleaxe. Gwynne Howell has his unsteady moments. Hickox is a superb Elgarian. Ten years on, he is better still and I have myself pleaded with him to make another recording. However, if sound quality is the nub for you then this version is to be seriously considered. The LSO Chorus is in fine fettle.
When we learned that Anthony Rolfe Johnson under Vernon Handley was going to issue their version, there was much excitement. So much was expected of Handley but he and his team simply don't deliver.
The relatively recent Naxos version is not to be recommended. That company's normal price advantage is lost in that there is no coupling.
It just so happens that I have a recording of the First Night of the 1991 Proms on video. The given work was The Dream of Gerontius. As it is not available, it need not detain us but I wish that Florence Quivar would make a commercial recording.
Most recently of all, at the time of writing, the video version given in St. Paul's Cathedral to mark the tercentenary of that building is in the shops. The cast is excellent and Andrew Davis proves himself to be an Elgarian nonpareil. However, even the expertise of the B.B.C. cannot tame the acoustic of the building. Philip Langridge could have been the Gerontius of our dreams. Let us hope that he does a studio version.
We come to the summing-up.
There is no outright perfect performance, perhaps an indication of the greatness of the work. Jon Vickers is superb for Barbirolli; you might find the discs in some second- hand shop; the quality of sound is poor. Janet Baker gives one of the great performances of the gramophone in her 1964 recording for Barbirolli. Britten is the supreme conductor.
But, like most things in life, you can't have everything. If quality of sound is your main criterion then go for Hickox. If you can cope with Pears then Britten is for you. If you want to be moved to tears by sheer beauty it is Janet Baker under Barbirolli.
If I personally were to be left with only one performance, it would be the Sargent recording of 1945.
” John Wagstaff, June 1998.