Monday 25 July 2005

Dreaming of Gerontius

Out of London for a short weekend, our trip back on Sunday night was much enlivened by the live relay of The Dream of Gerontius from the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall. The soloists were Paul Groves (Gerontius), Alice Coote (Angel) and Matthew Best with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. The Halle Choir was boosted by the London Philharmonic Choir, the 2 choirs making a suitably fine sound.

As far as we could tell, listening over the car radio, Paul Groves was a moving Gerontius. Perhaps he needed a little more heft, but its difficult to tell without being there. He was quite restrained, in fact his manner and his exemplary diction rather reminded me of Heddle Nash's renowned recording of the role; the recording I grew up on, in fact.

This was very much a dignified, Anglican interpretation of the work. A friend of mine has a theory that you can divide Gerontiuses into two types, dignified Anglican (Sir Adrian Boult) and passionate Catholic (John Barbirolli). What I liked about the soloists was that they sang with passion and committment without going too over the top in an operatic manner; there is a tendency nowadays to see the work as an opera manque and to sing it accordingly.Coote was near ideal as the Angel and we will really have to make an effort to hear her live.

Rather imaginatively, the semi-chorus was sung by the recently formed Halle youth choir; the main Halle Choir itself is the same age as the orchestra, who are Britains oldest professional orchestra.

My first live exposure to the work was in the early '70s when I was a student in Manchester. The Halle was directed by James Loughran then, but the aura of Barbirolli still hung over the orchestra. They performed a number of works associated with Barbirolli, such as the Elgar Violin Concerto, which were rarely performed in England at the time. The details of the performances are rather lost in the mists of time, but I rather think that we heard Janet Baker and Richard Lewis in the work. On performance I do remember, rather oddly, was one given by student forces at the Royal Northern College of Music where the student choir, orchestra and soloists were joined by veteran tenor Alexander Young as Gerontius; he was Head of Vocal studies at the College at the time.

Perhaps the most memorable Gerontius I was ever involved in was the time I sang in the work with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra. It was Bernard Haitink's first performance of the piece and for tenor soloist he had the elderly Richard Lewis, fresh from a dual hip replacement operation. Lewis's performance, from memory, was remarkable; when he opened part 2 with the words I fell asleep but now I am refreshed, you really felt that this man had died. Lewis's voice lacked something in power but Haitink was a wonderful accompanist and you never felt that the orchestra overwhelmed Lewis. A truly wonderful performance

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