Elgar The Dream of Gerontius 20 May 2017

Dream of Gerontius thumbnailRegarded by many as Edward Elgar’s finest work, The Dream of Gerontius sets the text of John Henry Newman’s poem that first appeared in 1865. Conversion to Roman Catholicism featured in both men’s lives:

Elgar’s mother shortly before Edward’s birth, and Newman’s move from the Anglican priesthood in 1846.

As Elgar has come to embody the spirit of English music, the latterly Cardinal Newman was to symbolise the Roman Catholic tradition in England, a position affirmed with the dedication of his beatific reredos in 2010 in Brompton Oratory, the church where Elgar married Alice in 1889.

In spite of a flawed first performance, Elgar’s Gerontius has become one of the great masterworks of the 20th century, and, on May 20th, its performance at Exeter Cathedral formed the final concert in the Exeter Philharmonic Choir series before the choir’s summer recess. Accompanied by The Sinfonietta, and directed by Andrew Millington, this fusion of Elgar and Newman’s monumental artistic and religious expression was given an outstanding performance, where complex and demanding music, setting complex and demanding words, soared among the cathedral’s arches as the refracted light of a setting sun played on the golden walls. One would be hard- pressed to find a more apposite and heart-lifting canvas against which to hear this deeply moving work.

Performances of Christian texts set to music throw up many question marks in an ever-increasingly secular society. While biblical depictions might have some resonance in the public consciousness, a work such as The Dream of Gerontius occupies a different sphere. It suffuses aspects of dogma, spirituality, theology, literary process and medievalism versus modernity. At its heart, though, it takes us on the journey of a just soul leaving the body at the moment of death. Indeed, Newman’s poem resides in a particular place in the ambit of English - as opposed to Continental - Roman Catholicism and, arguably, exists in a doctrinal world that no longer makes a connection between people’s consciousness and belief in the same way that it once might have done. Its literary roots were formed against the backdrop of significant shifts in English literature between Newman’s birth in 1801 and the appearance of this text, and its religious concepts are thought provoking enough for devout Roman Catholics, raising complex issues both for non-Roman Catholics and for those of no faith. And it is faith that lies at the core of this text. Elgar’s music engages with this on many levels, not just in a programmatic depiction of a supposed sequence of events, but also in an articulation through music of a belief that Newman expressed in words.

Like a Greek drama, the tableau of Newman’s poem is voiced by a chorus that assumes different roles, and Exeter Philharmonic Choir gave a superlative account of each. The sweetness of the soprano sound together with the upper-voice semi-chorus sections floated effortlessly, and it was good to hear such committed and colourful singing from the altos, especially in contrapuntal sections of the music. The tenors and basses rose to the challenge of conveying how Elgar imagined Newman’s Demons, albeit with a definite Devonian edge to their words. That being said, diction was the one area where there was some room for more choral improvement and clarity overall: the cathedral acoustic, with a choir raised on tiers, takes no prisoners, and it was a shame that one could not always be certain of the text. Nonetheless, when the full choral force was unleashed at Praise to the holiest in the height the impact
was simply thrilling, while the divided choir moments, and the Litany, were impressively controlled.

In interpreting Newman’s words, Elgar scores for mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass solo voices, each playing a distinct role in the poem. While the tenor Richard Berkeley- Steele was indisposed, and unavailable to sing the role of Gerontius and his Soul, Stephen Anthony Brown came to the rescue at very short notice, and brought both sensitivity and declamation to the part. The role is exacting not only technically but also emotionally, and Stephen gave a performance that was full of fervour and intensity. The bass soloist Quentin Hayes delivered, as ever, a profound and beautiful account, including a stunning Proficiscere anima Christiana that one would find hard to better. The role of the Angel appears in Part Two, and was sung in this performance by Alison Kettlewell. She, like her fellow soloists, embodied the part with heart and soul, her background in drama emerging from the opening with a startling conviction in the text that gripped throughout. Her changes in vocal colour, from dark to light, matched the music perfectly, and all three soloists delivered quite remarkable qualities of interpretation and commitment to the text. While sheer orchestral and choral heft can often cause the hairs on the back of the neck to rise, it was the soloists’ wholehearted possession of these roles that caused such a reaction.

The Sinfonietta’s orchestral playing excelled, as always, under Richard Studt’s fine leadership, and, within the context of this excellence, particular praise must be given for the artistry and passion of the cello playing (especially in the higher registers), the blend of horns and woodwind, the sheer joy of bringing Elgar’s percussion parts to life, and the fantastic dynamic control of the brass: from pianissimo to tasteful gloriousness. The poise of the Prelude was exquisite and set the scene for what was to come: indeed, Elgar’s score is an essay in orchestration, and all his instrumental detail was communicated so carefully and expertly in this performance.

Poignantly, this concert had a valedictory significance in that it marked Andrew Millington’s final appearance as Director of Music of Exeter Philharmonic Choir, a post he assumed in 2003. The choir’s 170th anniversary this year has been celebrated with offerings of an array of superb choral and orchestral music, and it was fitting that, this evening, the piece of music which Elgar himself described as ‘the best of me’ should be directed by one whose affinity for, and admiration of Elgar’s music were apparent from the outset. How wonderful and refreshing to see - in an age where unnecessarily histrionic conducting seems to be in vogue – choral and orchestral direction of such understated control and calm assurance. Andrew’s supreme musicianship allowed the nuance of Elgar’s craft to unfold, illuminating the narrative, mystery, aura and hope of Newman’s text as it did so.

Newman’s cardinalatial motto was Cor ad cor loquitur – ‘heart speaks to heart’, and, thus, conductor, orchestra, soloists and choir invited the listener lovingly into a world of sound where words and music offer their transfiguring power, and where Gerontius’s journey could become our own.
David Davies

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