The first thing you need to know about Daniel Barenboim’s live performance with the Staatskapelle Berlin is that it is the best-sounding Gerontius on record. No British string section has ever played the work with such sweet serenity. No British winds ever breathed with such deep assurance. Strange as it may seem, the Berlin musicians and chorus singers feel this most English of works in their fingers and bones. There is something akin to love in their playing.
This is not to disparage past recordings, all by English forces, notably the Halle’s with John Barbirolli and two-thirds of a dream team in Janet Baker and Richard Lewis; or the LPO with Adrian Boult and Nicolai Gedda, Helen Watts and Robert Lloyd. Nor would I want to be without Sakari Oramo’s recent Birmingham selfie release. All three are passionate accounts. This one just sounds lovelier, less effortful. The critical faculty of disbelief is suspended for the duration.
Daniel Barenboim shares with the composer a breezy agnosticism and a love for English moderation. His approach to the oratorio is broadsided, utterly secure, without shocks or fancy gestures. The intended soloists were Jonas Kaufmann, Sarah Connolly and Thomas Hampson. The first two called in sick, to be replaced by Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Andrew Staples. Their voices are, perhaps, a shade less full but the cohesion of soloists, orchestra and chorus is admirable. Never a huge devotee of post-Handel English oratorios, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a Gerontius this much before.
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