Philharmonia Orchestra – Elgar 2007: The Dream of Gerontius

The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Peter Sidhom (bass-baritone)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 24 May, 2007
Venue: Westminster Cathedral, London

I think that we, in the comfortable teleological swing of the current century, often forget what a truly innovative and fundamentally creative composer Elgar was. This superb performance was a timely reminder. As I left, somewhat moved, I heard a lady, who appeared, in a touching piece of natural justice, to be being eaten by her own mink coat, describe this magnificent performance of Elgar’s paradigm-shifting oratorio as “interesting”. This, I feel, is the sort of person who would journalistically file the onset of nuclear Armageddon in the “Funny Old World” column.

From this it can be gathered that Sir Andrew Davis’s electrifying interpretation, in the opulent and highly suitable dark environs of Westminster Cathedral, was magnificent. From the sinuous, sensitive opening, through each delicate, hanging rubato, even through the terrifyingly fiery demonic passages, and into the translucent calm on the far side, Davis caressed the orchestra and choir with innate care and intelligence in every minute detail.

With a firm and coherent string texture, some of the orchestral phrases were shapely enough to warrant a figure-hugging bathing-costume. The acoustic served this purpose well, with a lot of reverb, but very few apparent echoes – due, I suspect, to the mass of the choir behind the orchestra.

As with any performance, there are going to be those moments that are less-than perfect, but here they were remarkably few and far between. Where they did occur, they were mostly confined to the choir. The choral singers’ strength lay in the security of their articulation and gentleness of their pianissimo passages – such as the very first choral entry. Their weakness, it seemed, lay in voice-production of the upper parts, with hints of ‘choral society’ warble and some mis-shaping of the longer vowels. This approach was far better suited to the more angelic sections and to the wonderfully gratuitous enjoyment of the climactic ‘Praise to the Holiest’ passages, which can’t have been legal in 1900 and still wouldn’t be mentioned at polite dinner parties. The ‘Demon’s Chorus’, however, fared less well, with the impression that these were demons more of the cutlery-waving variety rather than the all-destroying, fire-bringing types.

James Gilchrist’s Gerontius conveyed the turbulence and passion needed for the role, with an operatic, almost visual drama. His quieter high entries were particularly notable and he created an almost monastic effect in this Cathedral setting. Peter Sidhom was far weightier, giving his first entry regal resplendence. As one, the audience straightened up; Sidhom’s was an assured, confident and forthright performance.

The emotional trajectory of the work was, however, carried by the rich-toned Catherine Wyn-Rogers, with an all-pervasive presence. She answered Gerontius’s overwrought questions with true, deep feeling, brooding with dark and terrible knowledge and awe-inspiring judgement. Her evocation of tender, pitying kindness in the latter sections of the work found the pinnacle of their beauty in the utter sentiment of the phrase “In my most loving arms I now enfold thee”. This was no angel taking a break from strumming a lute or perching atop a Christmas tree; this was an angel of the Old Testament, of power and of knowledge, in full terror and glory.

Let’s face it, “The Dream of Gerontius” is a luscious, gratuitous and indulgent work, and wonderfully so. Even its large-scale form gives away its almost-immoral lasciviousness. I have well-educated friends who tell me they would have loved to have engaged in some recusant rough ‘n’ tumble and a post-reformation cigarette with William Byrd. But don’t let the pipe-smoking, Edwardian carpet-slippered image of Elgar fool you – a Byrd motet might last mere minutes, but Elgar’s ‘Dream’ will last you all night, and this particular performance will endure for far longer.

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