A surprising, if welcome, entry into the ABC’s Classic 100 20th Century was this huge choral monument. Gerontius is never an easy work to bring off. Some conductors and performers treat it like a church service, instead of the great music drama that it is. The work drips with Catholic piety and needs special care.
Vladimir Ashkenazy has an unusual affinity for Elgar and he plays this oratorio with passion and conviction. The hushed choral invocation towards the end of Part 1 is exquisitely handled. At this point the overly reverberant recording, which takes the edge off the music elsewhere, is perfect. Lilli Paasikivi’s Angel is beautiful; more effective on the CD than I remember her in the concert hall. Mark Tucker’s impassioned Gerontius is marred by strain at the top of his range.
More than 20 versions are currently available on disc. Although the SSO plays superbly, the remarkable 1964 recording with Barbirolli and the Philharmonia is the one to beat: soloists Richard Lewis and Janet Baker are beyond compare and the closer-miked recording is illuminating. Joining Gerontius on Sydney Symphony’s 2-CD set is the work that came in at number one on the ABC’s 100 list, also in a recording drawn from the successful Elgar festival of 2008. Jian Wang plays the Cello Concerto with gusto and Ashkenazy’s direction is sensitive.