Tuesday 25 March 2014

Elegiac dreaming: Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Edward Elgar
Edward Elgar
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius: City of London Choir, Guildford Choral Society, Leicester Philharmonic Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilary Davan Wetton: The Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Glorious 70th birthday celebration for conductor Hilary Davan Wetton

Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was performed at the Royal Albert Hall (19 March 2014) by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the combined voices of the City of London Choir, Guildford Choral Society, Leicester Philharmonic Choir, and Choirs from St Paul’s Girls’ School as part of the 70th birthday celebrations of the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton’s. All the choirs involved have at one time been intimately associated with Wetton and at this concert several members of his family were also singing.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was a quintessentially English composer, one of a handful (including Ralph Vaughan Williams) who immediately come to mind when thinking about the English sound in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born near Worcester to a musical family - his father William was a violinist and organist and, despite travelling and relocating for work, returned time and again to the area.

Based on a poem given to Elgar in 1889 as a wedding present on the occasion of his marriage to his former pupil Caroline Alice Roberts, The Dream of Gerontius was written for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of 1900.

The poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), describing a soul's journey through death, was written in 1865. Although he was a member of the Church of England Newman was instrumental in the teachings of the Oxford Movement, which wanted to restore Catholic values to the Anglican church. Although, under the influence of pressure from the Movement, some elements of traditional religious practice were included into Church of England liturgy, Newman converted into Catholicism in 1845, becoming a cardinal in 1879. In 2010 he was beatified during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Birmingham – the place where Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was first performed.

The poem, written 20 years after Newman’s conversion, is full of Catholic doctrine and mysticism, which prevented Elgar’s composition being performed in more conservative Anglican venues. After its premier Elgar, himself a Catholic, was pressurised into changing some words and imagery to make it more palatable – for example the words ‘souls in purgatory’ was sanitised to ‘souls’, and prayers to Mary were replaced with prayers to Jesus.

The first part of the text is concerned with the death of Gerontius (old man). Assisted by friends and a priest in prayer and meditation he confronts his fears and hopes. The second part describes his journey towards judgement. Accompanied by his guardian angel he passes demons and choirs of angels before facing God and entering purgatory with a promise of eventual glory.

Soloists Diana Moore (Mezzo-soprano performing the angel), Andrew Staples (Tenor – Gerontius), and Jacques Imbrailo (Bass-baritone providing the voice of the priest and Angel of Agony) were in fine form. Their placement right at the front of the stage helped with volume but, against 430 members of the choir as well as the full orchestra, their voices were sometimes an element of colour within the huge sound rather than providing story details.

Having surtitles might possibly have helped (since it was too dark to read the programme) but personally I did not think that this mattered too much. The power of Gerontius is in the music and the audience’s emotional connection to the performances. Here we had emotion aplenty from the soloists but also from the choirs and orchestra.

Having such a mass of voices meant that the volume, for example the demons’ chorus, had the potential to be very loud indeed, and the contrasts between that and the soloists could be striking - one particular example was the forte section of ‘Rescue me’ contrasting with Gerontius’ ‘I fain would sleep’. Yet due to careful control the choirs were still able to be powerful during their quieter moments and quickly respond to changes in volume such as the sliding dynamics after the Miserere.

Having different elements within the choir sing at different times added a variation of colour not possible with smaller numbers. The girls’ choir had a lovely unaccompanied section during the angel’s speeches, which provided a contrast between their sweet voices and the bass led ‘judged’ and prior menacing demon section. I was also impressed with the clarity of diction from such a large choir.

Added to this variety the orchestra themselves made the most of Elgar’s use of orchestral colour - from delicate harp solos to no holds barred as loud as possible fff. Even the Royal Albert Hall organ got to join in. The audience was so entranced that at the end of the first half it took the conductor turning around and waving to signify the interval and the start of applause.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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