Sir Andrew Davis has performed “The Dream of Gerontius” with these same forces in live performance. And that may be why this recording sounds so organic. Sarah Connolly, Stuart Skelton, and David Soar sound like they’ve all settled into their roles, and the duets seem sometimes almost conversational.
Davis’ vision of Elgar’s massive work leans towards the operatic, which makes this performance sound more like a story with forward motion rather than a series of devotional tableaus.
Davis elicits a standout performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and especially from the BBC Symphony Chorus. The ensemble sound is impeccible, of course, but the variety of expression he gets from them makes the chorus active characters in the drama, rather than background figures.
David Soar has a rich, full bass. He manages give the lofty pronouncements of his priestly character a sense of humanity.
As a heldentenor, Stuart Skelton brings a brightness and energy to the role of Gerontius. And it makes sense — Gerontius isn’t actually a dying old man, but a soul freed from the body of a dying old man. Skelton effectively conveys all the emotions Gerontius experiences as his soul hastens towards its final judgement.
Gerontius’ guardian angel is sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who also brings welcome dramatic impetus to her role. To my ears, her voice sometimes had an edge to it that seemed at odds with the ethereal music surrounding it, but that’s a minor quibble.
Connolly fares better as the soloist in the orchestral song cycle “Sea Pictures,” also included with this release. That slight brassiness I heard in her voice is an asset in this work. Connolly sounds as expansive as the seascapes the music depicts, with an expressive energy that’s entirely appropriate to the text.
Although available for download, I strongly suggest investing in the SACD. The additional detail I heard in the orchestra, chorus, and especially the soloists made this a much more powerful listening experience.
Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38; Sea Pictures, Op. 37
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; David Soar, bass; BBC Symphony chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Chandos SACD 5140 2-disc set