“The Dream of Gerontius”, Elgar’s opus 38 – Vivid memories from April 1945

By Ted Gadsby     

“The Dream of Gerontius”, Elgar’s opus 38 – Vivid memories from April 1945

April this year marked the 70th anniversary of the recording in Huddersfield Town Hall of the ‘Dream’, an occasion I witnessed at first hand. Could an 8-year old claim to have appreciated what was going on, and how much is it a genuine memory or later study? I confirm how I was deeply moved – this guaranteeing for me what I genuinely recall. I experienced a spiritual wakening at the choir’s affirmation of “Praise to the Holiest” and the lingering of Heddle Nash’s frightened, dying and weak voice shook this child on that day. I was hooked.

Sir Edward Elgar conducting first record 'Carissima' Jan 1914, possibly at City Road - Early 20th century recordings.  Image supplied Courtesy of The  EMI Group Archive Trust

Sir Edward Elgar conducting first record ‘Carissima’ Jan 1914, possibly at City Road – Early 20th century recordings. Image supplied Courtesy of The EMI Group Archive Trust

From the Mayor’s box (there were, maybe, 14 or 16 Huddersfield Choral Society (HCS) committee members, friends and civic dignitaries) we looked down into the auditorium; no other non-participants were present, just performers and recording engineers. I had been taken there by my father, Hugh Frederic Gadsby (on leave from the RAF) and his own father, Frederic Walter Gadsby, a long-serving member of the HCS Committee (and its President: 1947-1949). I remember acute embarrassment as my elders in the mayor’s box stood up in unison – and I demurely followed – on two occasions to demand a re-start.

In those days of direct shellac recording re-starts were discouraged – get it right first time! I remember the repetitive stops & starts as successive maximum-12 minute sections were put down for each of the 78-rpm’s 24 sides onto which the master (HMV recording C.3435-3446) was directly archived. Only those two sides (nos. 4 & 9 out of 24) were re-started, a remarkable contrast to today’s ‘perfecting-technology’. Cleverly, the sound technicians, I learned since, over-lapped many of the sides “as if anticipating how this could help bring together the recording as a whole at sometime in the future.”

This had been the first recording of the full 1900 work (those in 1927 under Elgar himself had been of extracts only). So, how did this performance compare with later ones? Bill Rosen has posed five short questions: Was Elgar England’s finest composer? Is The Dream of Gerontius his finest work (“the best of me”)? Was this Sargent’s finest hour and his 1945 recording of this work the greatest ever made? Was Heddle Nash the finest Gerontius ever? Whilst I am ill-qualified to compare this with a dozen post-war recordings, Rosen believes that others played the drama too early, Sargent (1945) sustaining it to the end. Perhaps his 1941 performance in London’s Queen’s Hall, hours before its destruction, moved and motivated him.

For years I had to make do with a poor cassette recording of an 8th December 1978 Radio 3 broadcast taped from the original discs, until I obtained, with great joy, the 2006 Direct Audio Transfer made by Pristine Audio (PACO.009). Despite bringing me a beautifully continuous performance, it will never cloud my personal reminiscences of that day. Two questions I pose: Does anyone know the exact date in April 1945 and, is there anyone else alive who bore witness to this musical treat? HCS’s 125th anniversary booklet (1961) omits this major contribution to choral music in its Notable Dates, it being covered in the Performance Listing.

Perhaps my visits to Birmingham Oratory, passing Cardinal Newman’s own office also adds a touch of sentiment! Being an early music buff, I don’t relish Gladys Ripley’s style, but my heart savours the whole. Heddle Nash’s “Take me away” will never be surpassed.

I was indeed so privileged to have witnessed the occasion, and after this arduous day was done, I proudly remembered being introduced to Mr. Herbert Bardgett, chorus master since 1932, and being patted on the head by Dr. Malcolm himself (two years before his knighthood)!

Comments invited and publication and archiving encouraged – by Ted Gadsby  

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