CBSO/Edward Gardner – The Dream of Gerontius [Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray & James Rutherford]

The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor) & James Rutherford (baritone)

CBSO Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 April, 2012
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Edward Gardner. Photograph: Jillian EdelsteinIt may have had a disastrous premiere in Birmingham in 1900, but the city has since more than made amends to The Dream of Gerontius (words by Cardinal Newman) in terms of successful performances. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has taken part in a large number of them, with its previous two Music Directors (Simon Rattle, then Sakari Oramo) both having recorded the work and with Andris Nelsons set to join them, but family illness put paid to that for the time being. Edward Gardner – the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor – was on hand for a reading that, if it did not plumb the ultimate depths, left no doubt as to the oratorio’s continued significance a century and more later.

From the early stages of the ‘Prelude’, it was evident this was to be a symphonic conception of a piece whose indebtedness to Wagner is felt primarily in terms of its integrated conception and its coherence. And, at a little over 90 minutes, this was a relatively swift though rarely rushed and never superficial account that allowed due space for the music’s pensiveness and introspection while giving full rein to its expressive fervour and emotional peaks. Each of its halves unfolded seamlessly and cumulatively toward respective conclusions that were convincing not merely in their spiritual resolution but also their sense of tonal tension and release.

Sarah ConnollyStanding in for an indisposed Toby Spence, Robert Murray did not quite avoid a tendency to the histrionic in his assumption of Gerontius, yet he conveyed an often-tangible sense of a figure poised on the cusp between life and death – not least in his lengthy monologue ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’, with its purposeful contrast of defiance and supplication. Any sense of strain was less noticeable in the second part, with its portrayal of the Soul that proceeded in calm inevitability towards the anguished catharsis of ‘Take me away’ – setting the seal on an interpretation that, whatever its occasional failings, suggested Murray had the measure of this part.

James Rutherford’s contribution was very much the finished article. His burnished baritone having gravitated to the bass end of the compass, he brought eloquence as well as forthrightness to the Priest in his commanding ‘Proficiscere’ entry, and his Angel of the Agony portrayal had vocal warmth while lacking nothing in baleful power. Nor was Sarah Connolly other than impressive as the Angel, her deft and elegant presence building in presence through to a majestic realisation of ‘Softly and gently’ that worked its gentle magic in what is surely the most transcendent conclusion to any oratorio-length work written in English.

The CBSO Chorus sang with relish in a piece that it has most likely tackled more often than other comparable choir, not least in the evanescent build-up to a spine-tingling ‘Praise to the Holiest’ – its contrapuntal dexterity admirably rendered despite a momentary falling-off in tension prior to the final refrain. The CBSO, too, was on fine form while taking Gardner’s predilection for incisive tempos firmly in its collective stride. Suffice to add that no-one rehearing the work, as well as those encountering it for the first time, could have failed to be impressed with the breadth, audacity and conviction of Elgar’s creative vision.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
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