ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius. The Music Makers.
Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Helen Watts, contralto; Robert Lloyd, bass; Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano. London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 66540 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 134:59
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Thanks to EMI Classics for filling a major musical void with the reissue on its British Composers series of Edward Elgar's masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius and The Music Makers. The performing artists make this 2-CD set special, especially Dame Janet Baker in The Music Makers (1912). As this century comes to a close, she will long (and rightly) be remembered for transforming the oft-predictable oratorio aria into a personal, powerful expression filled with beautiful sounds and endless sensibilities. She shapes and vitalizes phrases using a plethora of different colors and dynamic variation. Consider her soaring "They had no vision amazing" and the sublime "Great hail! We cry to the corners" for examples of her elegant singing. Again, thank you EMI!

The trio of soloists in The Dream of Gerontius (1899) is also impressive: contralto Helen Watts, tenor Nicolai Gedda and bass Robert Lloyd. Few works better exemplify the stateliness and majesty of Victorian England. Those grand Elgarian moments when he builds long, ascending unison passages over tension-filled chromatics occur throughout. Equally powerful is Elgar's bold use of voice-doublings and imitation. In contrast, Elgar's moments of self-reflection are very moving, such as "Softly and gentle, dearly ransomed soul" (Watts) and "Novissima hora est" (Gedda).

In both works the wonderfully expressive London Philharmonic Choir under a supportive Sir Adrian Boult deserves equal praise. Highly recommended!

K.S. (Sept. 1999)