Because Elgar stansd for a bygone England, audiences expect a reading of Gerontius to be old English, that is, piety, grandness, and cut velvet. This intimate connection goes beyond musical values; it's a "Land of Hope and Glory" thing that American listeners aren't part of. Which may be why this recording, the least old English I've ever heard, also struck me as the most enjoyable. It is beautifully played and recorded, but more importantly, it isn't traditional, so we outsiders can learn to love the music for its own sake, not its cultural nostalgia.
It's telling that for the first time an American, Paul Groves of Louisiana, was picked to sing the title role. He, too, is an outsider and valued for that reason. The voice is first cousin to British tenors on the order of Richard Lewis, supple, bright, forward, and plaintive. The accent chosen is British, as it almost has to be. Groves, who won both the Richard Tucker Award and the Met's national auditions, is in very good voice, firm and dramatically convincing. He leaps ahead of David Rendall, who sings for Sir Colin Davis on LSO Live, inviting comparison with the honored tenors on classic sets: Lewis, Peter Pears, and Nicolai Gedda. For sheer vocal freshness he outstrips them all, lacking only a deep-dyed association with the part.
In their enthusiastic 2009 review, the Gramophone held Sir Mark Elder's Gerontius up against the classic one by Sir John Barbirolli and the same Halle Orch. (an ensemble that has improved enormously over the years), saying of Sir John that "his famous account has lived in everyone's hearts for decades." For devotees of the work, I imagine that Barbirolli and the equally beloved Boult will never slip from the shelf. I haven't been washed in the blood of the lamb so far as Gerontius goes, but listening to the magnificent Bryn Terfel as the Priest, soaring above ravishing brass chords, I know what it's like to be a believer -- Elgar's score has been stripped of varnish and made meaningful to newcomers, which is a real accomplishment. Any mezzo undertaking the Angel's part is fated to lose to Janet Baker, whose singing on the Barbirolli set remains unique in its lustrous passion. Alice Coote is a rising star in Britain, and she sings with gentle intimacy, not trying to prove anything. Her timbre isn't especially memorable, but she does a lovely job.
If you want to hear The Dream of Gerontius performed with urgency and freshness, this version is one to give first priority to, I think.