ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius. WALTON: Belshazzar’s Feast

ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius. WALTON: Belshazzar’s Feast. Marjorie Thomas, mezzo-soprano; Richard Lewis, tenor; John Cameron, baritones; James Milligan, bass-baritone; Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI CHS-7 63376 2. (2 CDs, monaural) [ADD] ; 71:15; 57:46. Produced by Lawrence Collingwood and Victor Olof.

Listeners who collect historical performances of English music will most likely be interested in this monaural reissue of two recordings from the 1950s, although others will probably find modern renditions more suitable to their needs. Sir Malcolm Sargent lived during the time and place in which these two works were composed and became established — and, indeed, he contributed significantly to the latter phenomenon. Thus, his relationship to them and their composers may fairly be viewed as intimate and proprietary. Sargent first conducted Gerontius while still in his twenties and, in 1945, led the work’s first recording. His connection with Walton and Belshazzar’s Feast is even closer: he conducted the work’s first performance in 1931, and championed it throughout his career. 

Sargent’s deep affection for Elgar’s masterpiece is evident in his conception of the work, despite some ragged orchestral playing. Originally recorded in 1954, this reading stands closest comparison with Sir John Barbirolli’s 1960 recording, in which a most profound and intimate conception is also marred by mediocre choral and orchestral execution. From this vantage point, one of the most interesting points of comparison involves Richard Lewis, tenor soloist in both recordings. In the Barbirolli, Lewis’ tight, strident reading is one of the recording’s distinct liabilities, while in this effort, six years earlier, Lewis is fluent and unencumbered — a most effective and affecting Gerontius. The other soloists — mezzo Marjorie Thomas and baritone John Cameron — are extraordinarily fine as well; indeed, the vocal soloists represent the strongest aspects of this performance. On the other hand, as beautifully shaped as Sargent’s conception is, overall, its level of intensity and concentration does flag somewhat in spots, especially during the extended “Praise to the Holiest” section of Part II. Barbirolli’s conception of the piece must be judged the more thoroughly unified and deeply perspicacious one. To the listener only just discovering one of the greatest choral works in the English language, I would recommend Simon Rattle’s modern recording (EMI Angel–CDS 7 4954 9 2; see Fanfare 12: 1, pp. 148-50).

The virtues of Sargent’s 1958 recording of Belshazzar’s Feast are less apparent. This is perhaps because the work itself is decidedly inferior, with music whose mundane, common-place tone does not begin to evoke the spirit or stature of the subject matter, tawdry though aspects of it may he. In this reissue, the opacity of the recording and the imprecision of the choral and orchestral execution are far more damaging to the overall effect. In a case like this, a splashy modern recording, such as Hickox’s or Previn’s, does the work more justice.

Complete texts are included in this reissue, part of EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series, but no information about the vocal soloists is given.