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It’s well known that Gerontius was a flop at its premiere in Birmingham in 1900, and not just because the forces were famously ill-prepared. Elgar’s choral masterpiece does not adhere to the Victorian norms of oratorio but rather takes its lead from Wagner’s Parsifal in terms of its musical organisation and spiritual subject matter. Small wonder, then, that it took someone from outside the oratorio tradition, namely Richard Strauss, who, on hearing a performance in Düsseldorf, immediately recognised Gerontius for the masterpiece it assuredly is. Despite Strauss’s advocacy, the work has remained by and large the preserve of British musicians, and recordings by European forces are rare indeed. Those by Barbirolli and Boult, and Elder and Rattle have all made their mark. For this new Pentatone recording (which has superb, spacious sound), Dutchman Edo de Waart secures idiomatic playing from his Belgian forces.

Occasionally he does something to surprise you: not including a rubato which, after a century’s performance practice, has come to seem inevitable. But he catches the nobility and tenderness of much of this great score, and brings fresh ears to its magnificently orchestrated textures. One could have done with slightly more refulgent string tone on occasion from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, but Collegium Vocale Ghent are, as you might expect, totally inside their contribution. None of the soloists are the match of their more illustrious predecessors in this work – after all, Janet Baker virtually ‘owned’ the Angel – but each brings something touching and personal to their performance. Auty is a full-voiced though still subtle Gerontius, Hancorn suitably authoritative as the Priest/Angel of Agony and Breedt a warm-sounding Angel. The inclusion of the First Symphony, one of the composer’s finest orchestral works, is a welcome bonus.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica


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