Friday 2 September 2022

Devastating intensity: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius at Prom 59

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius - Edward Gardner, Allan Clayton, London Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius - Edward Gardner, Allan Clayton, London Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Chris Christodoulou/BBC)

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Allan Clayton, Jamie Barton, James Platt, London Philharmonic Choir, Hallé Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed 31 August 2022 (★★★★★)

Perfectly paced with a remarkable intensity, a performance of Elgar's oratorio that blossomed in the space, and with the title role sung devastatingly by Allan Clayton

Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius seems to be a work made for the Royal Albert Hall. In smaller venues it can seem somewhat constrained and confined, the large-scale choruses unable to blossom. At the BBC Prom on Wednesday 31 August 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall, Edward Gardner conducted the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and the Hallé Choir, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra plus soloists Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor) and James Platt (bass) in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius - Edward Gardner, Allan Clayton, Jamie Barton, London Philharmonic Choir, Halle Choir, , London Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius - James Platt,Jamie Barton, Edward Gardner, Allan Clayton,
London Philharmonic Choir, Hallé Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Chris Christodoulou/BBC)

Gardner set out his approach from the very beginning, the prelude was all long controlled lines, perfectly paced and quietly intense. There was something gripping about the way the music flowed, the tenseness of the emotion kept under check but always there. At university I had a friend who swore that performances of the work could be boiled down to two approaches, that of Boult or Barbirolli, and he was convinced that whether the conductor took the text as simply an allegory or as a direct religious statement made a difference. Discuss!

Certainly, there are different ways of approaching The Dream of Gerontius, perhaps we might call them the classical and the romantic, the one shapes the work and allows the emotion to simmer underneath only bubbling up at key points, the other more explicitly and more directly emotional. Gardner veered towards the former, and the emotion in this performance told all the more for being in a finely controlled and shaped background.

The role of Gerontius is a tricky one and whilst it is sung by dramatic tenors, it is worth bearing in mind that the great 20th century exponents of the role including Heddle Nash and Richard Lewis were not dramatic tenors but more on the spinto side, able to project over the orchestra but also able to sing with fine focus and delicacy. From the opening moments, Allan Clayton showed himself one of this company. Throughout the evening he had the ability to fine his voice down, sing on a thread and yet he was always audible, always present and throughout, his diction was simply superb. The words meant something, the music shaped to them so that his performance came and went as the meaning ebbed and flowed. In the first half, the moments of intense quiet despair were punctuated by those vivid flurries of emotion. And in the second half, we had the long sequence of dialogue with Jamie Barton's Angel which led to the great solo 'Take me away', sung with purity and devastating intensity. 

Jamie Barton was a warmly human Angel, singing with mellow radiance and a clear sense of joyful satisfaction. It was unfortunate, then, that in the middle range her voice did not quite carry as one wanted , she did not seem to be able to cut through and soar in the way that Clayton did, whilst the climactic top A for the Angel's final 'Alleluia' felt too effortful and out of character. The Angel's dialogue with Gerontius in the second part was finely done, and each of Barton's phrases was beautifully shaped. And yet. She did not quite have the knack, important in this work, of making each of the Angel's phrases a truly memorable utterance. This was a finely musical account, but the spine rarely tingled and frankly the Angel's farewell at the end seemed a touch too humane, too mundane.

James Platt made a finely lyrical Priest and Angel of the Agony. In both his solos he sang with trenchant directness, but without bluster. His lieder experience and the lyrical side to his voice were strongly felt, and it was lovely to have the role sung by a bass rather than a bass-baritone so that the lower reaches were wonderfully resonant.

The chorus, of course, is one of the most important factors in the work and here the London Philharmonic and the Hallé Choir were in fine form. They sang with a unified tone and litheness that gave a fine-grained quality to the music, the choral performance was at one with those long lines from the orchestral prelude. That is not to say that the climaxes were not overwhelming, but there was a finesse to the sound and a concentration rather than a wallowing in sheer amplitude. This angelic host was certainly a sophisticated one, and I have rarely heard a performance where there seemed such a unanimity of approach, though the Demons' Chorus in Part One was perhaps slightly too polite, too tamed. The semi-chorus work was finely done, the smaller moments such as the women's chorus in Part Two had a delicacy and transparency to them, yet in the climactic moment of 'Praise to the Holiest' we were suitably overwhelmed. The chorus' diction was very fine, getting the words across in the Royal Albert Hall is tricky and though it was clear that the choir training had prize line above all, the words did carry.

The orchestra continued the promise showed in the prelude, giving us a finely classical yet highly expressive account, the moments of emotion showing intensely and sharply. Gardner's performance was fluid, for all the fine shaping and space for the soloists, this was an account of The Dream of Gerontius that really flowed, the pacing was everything I wanted it to be.

No account of a work as complex as this will encompass everything, but this performance came pretty close to my ideal. The concert is available on BBC Sounds for nearly a year.

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