The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Gerontius – Paul Groves
Priest / Angel of the Agony – Neal Davies
Angel – Christine Rice
London Philharmonic Choir
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 26 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s (Victorian era) poem can be one of the most compelling and moving musical experiences in the whole of the repertoire. The reasons why on this occasion “The Dream of Gerontius” (Elgar avoiding terming it an oratorio, or anything generic) wasn’t as moving or as transcending as it can be is difficult to pin-down. It certainly wasn’t the lack of preparation, for Edward Gardner (nipping over the Thames from English National Opera where he is music director) had honed the London Philharmonic to the nth degree and also unearthed some details (usually in the woodwinds) that tend to be overlooked. Indeed, the LPO played splendidly throughout, often exquisitely, not least at the beginning of Part Two (its arrival delayed by a planned if an unfortunate interval) when Gerontius’s soul begins its journey in the Afterlife (Newman’s text conforms to Roman Catholic beliefs of what happens after death) and in which the string-playing had a timeless beauty that was poised and receptive, and Gardner’s very spacious tempo was convincing (we were now breathing a different air). It wasn’t always thus, though, for sometimes he harried the score along and at other points he dragged things. Balance wasn’t ideal in the lengthy scene-setting Prelude, trumpets and trombones hectoring in their over-loud dominance, the strings (violins antiphonal) covered.
Also Gardner seemed too objective, at arm’s length to the music and its emotions; his control and sureness of the score were not in doubt, though, and the ‘production values’ of the finished performance were very high. The choral singing, like the orchestral playing, was magnificent, whether in ‘Chorus of Demons’ (timpanist Simon Carrington adopting wooden-headed sticks, as required) or in a simply tremendous ‘Praise to the Holiest’, which was awesome in volume and unanimity; and the way that the choristers found a rhythmically airborne quality in its aftermath was quite exceptional. Yet, emotions otherwise were not stirred enough. Technically there was much to admire, so too the performers’ dedication and responsiveness to Gardner’s often-finite direction. Perhaps that was one problem, that there was nowhere to go after the rehearsal process, and Part Two never quite gelled as a single if diverse journey. Of the singers, Paul Groves is a very experienced Gerontius and he sang as such, yet he too (apart from the occasional strain) seemed slightly outside of the role if impressively sustaining the long “Sanctus fortis” monologue, and anticipating eagerly the events of Part Two (“What lets me now from going to my Lord?” was gracefully turned); and Christine Rice, however beautiful the voice, lacked compassion and any suggestion of being from another domain. Neal Davies (replacing Alastair Miles) seemed self-conscious as the Priest (Part One) but came into his own as Angel of the Agony, somewhat stealing the show, vocally, finding a Wagnerian power; momentarily, we strayed into “Parsifal”.
Much to impress and admire, then, but rarely did this performance reach to the sublime utterance that ‘Gerontius’ is, and has been in this very hall, in a performance that lacked for transporting virtues.