The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor) & James Rutherford (baritone)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 14 April, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Heard so closely to Parsifal, recently performed at the Barbican Hall by the Mariinsky company, it was interesting to get the measure of how completely Elgar had assimilated aspects of Wagner without staying in his shadow. The other aspect this marvellous performance of The Dream of Gerontius (in no way compromised by the withdrawal of Andris Nelsons and Toby Spence) eloquently confronted – however tenuous our contemporary relationship with the specifically Catholic Christianity of Cardinal Newman‘s poem (written in 1860, thus making it ‘modern’ to Elgar) – was the timeless dread of death and of the extinction of self.
Edward Gardner combined drama with a sense of intimacy that permeated even the scene-stealing choruses. He, as it were, gave the music wings and drew playing of immense refinement from this superb orchestra, which shone a discreet light on the incredible skill of Elgar’s instantly recognisable but elusive orchestration. From the first thing we hear, the sense of a life faltering to its close in the ‘Prelude’, Gardner revealed his intense, direct engagement with the score and, courtesy of the Barbican Hall’s clear acoustic, let us hear a huge amount of detail. The CBSO woodwinds were on tremendous form, and there were moments of incomparable transparency from the strings.All the vital elements – the bleak, Gerontius-defining sound of the opening bars, the weightlessness of the introduction to Part Two, the ear-bending subtlety of the orchestra’s role in the ‘Angel’s Farewell’, the constant evocation of huge distances (difficult to achieve in this acoustic) – were in place for a performance steeped in drama and grace, which realised the stature of the work and freeing it from the overt religiosity of oratorio ‘tradition’.
Gardner was helped enormously is this respect by Robert Murray’s memorable portrayal. The way Murray tailored his voice to Gerontius’s transition from life to death was a masterpiece of subtle characterisation, and his growth into disembodied spirit honoured Elgar’s vision to an extraordinary degree. Murray’s singing was predominantly light, flexible and penetrating, the passages of emotional strain entirely in keeping with the music. The opening soliloquy established the immediacy of Murray’s performance as a whole, and the anguish of his ‘Take me away’ (after his judgment) was visceral in its final, unforgettable letting go.
Very much in tune with Murray’s extraordinary sense of abandonment, Sarah Connolly brought her inimitable style of dramatic and musical connection to the role of the Angel. Her dialogue with Gerontius at the start of Part Two had just a touch of theatre to give it heightened presence, her top A in the final ’Alleluia’ was electrifying, and the way in which in the ‘Farewell’ her lower voice kept getting absorbed into the choral and orchestral textures as the Angel gradually retreats was overwhelming. What an imaginative, fresh artist she is. James Rutherford delivered a magnificently sonorous Priest, s mobile and forthright ‘Proficiscere’, and folded in a surprising degree of sympathy into the familiar hell-fire of the Angel of the Agony’s declarations.
The CBSO Chorus ranged effortlessly from subliminal pianissimos to sensational gales of volume in ‘Go forth’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest’, and the ‘Demons’ Chorus’, the words of which eerily seem to sum up the inevitable result of aggressive secularity, crackled with energy and impressive athleticism.