Sunday 15 April 2012

Dream of Gerontius

The CBSO's performances of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Thursday and seen by us at the Barbican on Saturday) turned out to be rather different to those planned. The orchestra's Latvian musical director Andris Nelsons was meant to conduct, with Toby Spence singing the title role. Elgar's oratorio is such an iconic English work that it is always fascinating when foreign conductors engage with it.

In the event, Nelsons had to cancel because of his daughter's illness and Toby Spence himself was ill. So Edward Gardner and Robert Murray stepped in. Gardner has a long history of engagement with the work, having being a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral (one of the Three Choirs Festival cathedrals). Elgar's oratorio was premiered in Birmingham but after a troubled start, developed a long history at the Three Choirs Festivals. Robert Murray is a young tenor making name for himself on the operatic stage and currently rehearsing for the new ENO production of The Flying Dutchman with Gardner conducting.

So, in the event, we had a very English performance of the piece. Gardner did not opt to press the operatic vein and his interpretation was beautifully in the vein of Anglican spirituality (think Adrian Boult) developed during the work's performance history at the Three Choirs Festival. That something else is possible is demonstrated by John Barbirolli who brought out the Roman Catholic intensity in the piece. Gardner took a nicely flexible view of tempi, so that the pulse ebbed and flowed. His speeds were on the moderate side but he did bring chorus and orchestra to some shattering climaxes. It was a deeply felt, intensely moving performance, superbly sung and played by chorus and orchestra.

Murray made a lyrical, open Gerontius, very much in the vein of Stuart Burrows. Perhaps his performance lacked a certain inwardness, but he did step into the role at the last minute and musically he was very fine indeed. He had the necessary heft for the part whilst still being able to offer lyrical beauty, two things that do not always go together nowadays. Sanctus fortis was superbly moving, but Take me away though superbly sung, did not quite tug the heart strings as I would have liked. But that is being picky, this was a fine performance; one which has the potential do develop into a great one if Mr Murray does not sing too many Tristans.

Sarah Connolly was the Angel. Ms Connolly is in danger of becoming a bit ubiquitous in the capital, but if she continues to turn in performances as fine as this one, I can see why. I was profoundly unmoved by Ann Sophie von Otter when I heard her in the role, with the LSO at the Barbican. Ms Connolly restored my faith in modern performances; having seen some very fine interpreters in the past (Janet Baker, Helen Watts) I was beginning to doubt whether we could still do it. But Connolly proved me wrong. A nicely controlled, well modulated performance, dignified but expressive, she brought a warmth to the performance which suffused her tone and ensure that her Angel, though dignified, was moving. Her dialogues with Mr Murray were nicely balanced and just enough on the operatic side to give interest. The great solos were profound, particularly Softly and gently which had a nicely controlled vein of melancholy.

Bass-baritone James Rutherford was simply required to sound impressive and this he did with aplomb, a performance that was moving and committed.

The Dream of Gerontius was premiered in Birmingham in the CBSO's old home, the town hall. This is not an especially large venue so there is no reason why the Barbican should not suffice. Crammed on to the platform, CBSO chorus and orchestra ensured that the climaxes were suitably shattering, but equally produced a ravishing hushed reverence.

The price to pay for this was having the stage extended out to Row D in the stalls. From our seats in Row G at the side of the stalls our main view was of the backs of the first violins, so close we could have helped them out if necessary. Our view of the choir all but obscured by the orchestra, soloists seen just from the side; those further along in the row would have no view of the soloists at all. Now these are not cheap seats (something over £30 each), admittedly not full price but still expensive enough. This is certainly not a satisfactory state of affairs. It is a shame that a way cannot be found to expand the Barbican stage backwards - a costly but surely desirable thing. As it is, I will certainly be thinking twice about listening to any large scale choral works again without thinking very carefully about where to sit.

The other drawback is the hall's lack of an organ. The electric one used was decent enough but its presence at climaxes was a bit discreet and without the physicality of a real organ.

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