The plain tiled walls of the Lighthouse may not be the ultimate venue to contemplate a soul’s journey through the afterlife, or summon visions of angels and demons, but its secular ordinariness might have won the approval of Charles Villiers Stanford who declared that The Dream of Gerontius “stank of incense.” No fear of any religious trappings here; yet, conducted by Kirill Karabits, Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem communicated deep spirituality. Karabits fashioned an account of compelling drama, its forward momentum not without subtle lingering or gravitas but shorn of sentimentality. The Prelude unfolded with gathering intensity, with just a hint of mistico, themes and changes of tempo smoothly integrated (as was the organ). Thereafter Karabits conducted with unwavering conviction, ensuring detail to register without sacrifices to balance.
In many ways Paul Appleby was an ideal Gerontius, despite being somewhat score-bound. He delivered a forthright reading, arguably too virile (in Part One) to evoke a man close to death, but he produced consistent clarion-edged tone, rarely gentle but strikingly powerful at “Sanctus fortis”. While certain passages early-on felt too driven, Appleby’s voice was of tremendous vitality, and he had command of words; for all that, Part One sped by with the sense that Appleby and Karabits had airlifted Gerontius to the Pearly Gates by express delivery. Admittedly, the explosive choral entry “Go in the name of Angels and Archangels” is marked più mosso; such petitions to send Gerontius on his journey were fiercely exhilarating.
Alice Coote was an outstanding Angel whose voice (reminiscent of Janet Baker whose timbre still haunts later recordings) plumbed expressive depths with a suppleness of phrasing allied to a distinctive palette – woody in the lower register and radiant above. Coote’s tenderness had a quality tailor-made for this role and her “farewell” was endowed with matchless beauty, stealing in to create a sublime moment and given much sensitive orchestral support. James Rutherford cut an imposing figure as the Priest and filled the auditorium with a solemn and stentorian “Proficiscere” in Part One and was suitably imploring later as the Angel of the Agony. The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus was superbly alert; reassuring as earthly friends, persuasive as cackling demons and thrillingly lustrous for “Praise to the Holiest”.
Allowing that when Gerontius briefly comes before God, the blinding tutti, for which Elgar instructs “every instrument exert its fullest force”, could have been more cataclysmic, this was a reading of great clarity and conviction, Karabits wholeheartedly absorbed in Newman’s text and Elgar’s visionary music, enabling its impact to sink in at the end, his raised hands ensuring a gratifying silence.