Evgeny Svetlanov

Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

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This 1983 performance at the Moscow Conservatory marked, surprisingly enough, the Russian premiere of Elgar's oratorio -- or oversized cantata -- The Dream of Gerontius. It's both less and more strange than some might think, and this CD reissue of a 1980s Soviet LP release, despite the bizarre retention of the fadeouts at the LP side breaks, has stirred up curiosity among a new generation of listeners curious as to what it could possibly be like. The recording was one of the first fruits of the post-Brezhnev thaw that eventually led to the Soviet Union's breakup. Conductor Evgeny Svetlanov was allowed to travel and conduct in England, where he apparently heard and became enamored of The Dream of Gerontius. He in turn managed to arrange this performance in Moscow, featuring English singers -- including the London Symphony Chorus -- accompanied by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. (The booklet is disappointingly vague about documenting exactly what went on.) So, for those expecting thick Russian textures in the mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass solo parts, no worries: the singers are all English and might even, in the case of baritone Norman Bailey, have used a bit more heft. The London Symphony Chorus is not inflected in a Russian direction; they sing the work as they had sung it countless times before. And yet for all that, the performance is absolutely unusual and profoundly Russian. Svetlanov sets the tone with an extreme performance of the opening Prelude, mightily slow and Tchaikovskian at 11 minutes plus, and the work evolves from that, with high-energy solos, stormy choral outbursts, and epic fugues and polyphonic climaxes in the second half. It's hard to deliver a judgment on the kind of performance that some will love and others will hate, but it can be stated that for those who have never particularly cottoned to this work, there may be a quality of sheer spiritual emotion here that will make listeners reconsider their stance. Melodiya's sound was reasonable for the 1983 Soviet Union, and although no English text is provided, the combination of clear enunciation and the wide availability of the text online makes the music transparent.

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