Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dream of Gerontius with Mark Elder and LPO

Manuscript score of The Dream of Gerontius
signed by Elgar and the performers at the premiere.
I missed John Barbirolli's reign in Manchester by 3 years, but as a student there in the 1970's there was still a strong Elgar tradition; they were amongst the few ensembles of the period who played the Elgar violin concerto with any regularity. So it is pleasing that Mark Elder, at the helm of the Halle since 2000, is continuing this tradition. I had heard Elder's account of Dream of Gerontius on disc (on the Halle Orchestra's own label) and on the radio but was much anticipating the performance of the work 26 January 2013 at London's South Bank Centre with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the opening group of concerts in the Rest is Noise festival. Paul Groves sang the title role, with Sarah Connolly and James Rutherford (standing in for an indisposed Brindley Sherratt) the other soloists. The London Philharmonic Choir was joined by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, singing the semi chorus.

I have to confess that the performance of the prelude was probably one of the slowest that I have encountered, Elder's speeds seemed to be slightly slower than his own recording and approaching those of Barbirolli. On his recording Elder takes 10'36 for the prelude and Barbirolli 10'43. The result, thanks to some superb playing from the orchestra, was magically transparent.


The overall timings for the whole performance were approaching those of Barbirolli's recording. Elder's speed for the Angel's farewell was daringly slow, but  logically consistent with the speed of the prelude. The result was not lachrymose or self-indulgent at all. Though Elder's overall timing was slow, his pulse varied enormously, ebbing and flowing throughout the music, with intense hurryings forward (such as the orchestra linterruption in Sanctus fortis which was intensely vivid) and slowings up . In this too Elder was close to Barbirolli. Elder's care was matched by the orchestra's attention to the dynamic, so that the texture ebbed and flowed as well. Elgar writes for a big orchestra, and at times uses it all, but for a lot of the piece the writing is designed to allow expressivity and flexibility in the singers. Elder's speeds and his care for all the details of the score brought out a myriad of wonderful moments when you thought how wonderful an orchestrator Elgar really was; moments when the texture thinned to just one or two instruments. It takes courage, and genius, to write for a huge orchestra and then not use it and Elder allowed us to fully appreciate this.

Barbirolli recorded The Dream of Gerontius with Richard Lewis, a tenor whom I heard twice in the role including his miraculous very late performance with the London Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink conducting in the 1980's. Lewis was a lyric tenor, rather then the bigger voiced tenors who often sing the role nowadays. Paul Groves is also a lyric perhaps on the heavier side, but still I think with Don Ottavio in his repertoire. Elder's control of the orchestra and their response to the dynamics allowed Groves to sing the role with superb control, and some daringly quiet moments. Most good performances of The Dream of Gerontius have one or two moments which make the hairs on the back of your neck rise, but this was full of them.

Grove's performance wasn't heroic, the role is not meant to be as this is a dying man. He rose finely to the great occasions such as Sanctus Fortis but it was the quieter moments, with his careful attention to both text and music, which were most moving. You thought here was a man dying, rather than a man acting. There was also great beauty in his performance, but this too was in the service of the piece rather than being an end in itself.  This was an intensely felt performance. A friend of mine once divided all Gerontius performances into either Catholic (e.g. Barbirolli) or Anglican (e.g. Boult), depending on how their performance reacted to the text. Groves and Elder seem to be firmly in the Catholic camp, delivering an intensely passionate, powerful reading which was a world away from English oratorio.

This was the second time that I had seen Sarah Connolly sing the part of the angel. She brought a rather interesting neo-classical control to the part, she is not exactly reserved but does not sing with the womanly richness which singers like Helen Watts and Janet Baker brought to the part. Instead you are aware how beautifully the role is sung and how Connolly uses every single nuance of Elgar's vocal part for expressive purposes. I have rarely heard the part so beautifully and intelligently sung. And she needed all her control to sing the Angel's farewell at the daringly slow tempo that Elder took it at, but it worked and brought the work it a moving close.

James Rutherford was standing in a short notice for Brindley Sherratt. Rutherford was a suitably impressive priest at the end of part one, and a moving angel of the agony in part two. At times, though, his voice betrayed a want of firmness, with vibrato being a little too dominant.

The choir of Clare College (director Graham Ross) sang the semi-chorus parts, singing with superb control and providing the still small voice amidst the grander choral gestures. The London Philharmonic Chorus (director Neville Creed) were on good form and extremely responsive to Elder's direction. They brought good control to the quieter passages, clearly enjoyed the vivid drama of the demons and rose to the thrilling climax of Praise to the Holiest.

It was lovely to hear the performance underpinned by the Royal Festival Hall organ, especially as my last two performances of the work have been at the Barbican where an electric instrument is used.

Elder's performance would not have worked half so well if he had not had a supremely responsive set of musicians in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. From the first notes of the prelude, it was clear that the players were completely in tune to Elder's way with the piece and they turned in some richly subtle and finely controlled playing.

One quibble, the programme note seemed to be written with a lack of understanding both of Roman Catholic liturgy and what Newman's text would mean to someone of Roman Catholic faith like Elgar, notably the doctrine of Purgatory..

This was one of those performances that sits in the mind for a long time; for the way the performers brought out the richness and subtlety of Elgar's response to Newman's text,  for the way Elder and the brilliant musicians of the LPO revealed the magical qualities to Elgar's orchestration and for the way both Paul Groves and Sarah Connolly seemed to inhabit the music and the text. A magical evening.

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