The Dream of Gerontius

The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
David Rendall (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 December, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A very full Barbican awaited this performance; though I suspect many were present to discover how Ben Heppner would tackle – and deliver – the role of Gerontius.

In the event, Heppner was ill and replaced by David Rendall. But the key to the success of this performance was the conducting of Sir Colin Davis. The word ‘urgency’ constantly sprang to mind. There was no unnecessary lingering, though every ritenuto and change in tempo was scrupulously observed. Indeed, Davis was uncommonly faithful to the composer’s markings, so the architecture of the score – with one section leading seamlessly on to the next – made for a satisfying and cohesive whole. This was further reinforced by the absence of an interval.

The spirit of Wagner hovered benignly – and appropriately – over the Prelude, with its atmospheric reminiscences of “Parsifal”, and one noticed how Elgar was indebted to his near-contemporary in the usage of motifs to depict mood and character.

The orchestral playing was of a very high order indeed, with plangent woodwinds making the most of Elgar’s expressive writing. Strings were sumptuous (antiphonal violins a plus) without being over-indulgent, whilst brass made piercing and refulgent contributions. Only occasionally did the latter seem out of proportion, with some overly strident playing – though, to be fair, the Barbican acoustic does not assist in this regard.

Actually, one might argue that the Barbican Hall’s space as a whole is not suited to this work, with its cramped placing of the chorus and the orchestra necessarily very much ‘up-front’, but in overall terms, this did not matter unduly. The only real drawback was the absence of a proper organ. An electronic equivalent cannot provide the depth of sonority needed for the pedals or the ‘full’ sound of the manuals that buttress the ‘big’ moments.Both are essential to Elgar’s conceived sonority.

But fullness of sound was not something that was lacking from the London Symphony Chorus. Indeed, its contribution was well-nigh ideal, with individual entries secure and the whole sounding satisfyingly full-bodied. The semi-chorus was draw from its ranks – not, as so often, from a separate group – and the individual lines were sensitively rendered.

The blazing climax of ‘Praise to the holiest’ was absolutely thrilling; earlier, the Chorus made convincing ‘demons’, aided by the conductor and a detailed response to the given dynamic and tempo markings.

I’m not sure how much notice David Rendall had before stepping in as Ben Heppner’s replacement – “extremely short” was the announcer’s comment – but, in the event, he sang confidently and with appropriate expression. One is obliged to report some moments of rhythmic and ensemble imprecision, but he was able to deliver the part with a commendable degree of empathy. If there was – from time to time – too much of the lachrymose about his singing, then this is not altogether absent from the writing itself. Elgar himself preferred an ‘operatic’ approach, andRendall certainly delivered that. Even so, one was left wondering how the now-Heldentenor Heppner might have interpreted the part. One suspects with greater individuality than Rendall supplied on this occasion.

Alastair Miles was impressive as both the Priest and The Angel of the Agony – the latter’s solo aided by an especially perceptive realisation of the accompaniment – and whilst some might prefer a darker bass voice, Miles was completely compelling in his contributions.

Anne Sofie von Otter may have been an unexpected choice as Elgar’s Angel, but she was totally convincing – not least as a result of lucid diction. She was certainly not the matronly contralto sometimes encountered in this part, and her bright tone and eager delivery were quite captivating. If she did not completely dispel memories of Alice Coote at this year’s Proms, then she was at least convincing in her own terms.

But, as alluded to earlier, it was the committed conducting of Sir Colin Davis which set the seal on this as a being an important performance. His observation of gradations of tempo and dynamics was quite unimpeachable. The forward thrust of ‘Praise to the holiest’, for instance, was gripping, as was his command of the close, with the Angel’s Farewell taken at a more measured speed than is customary.

This was, altogether, a reading which removed Elgar’s setting ofNewman’s poem from the confines of the mainstream of English oratorio into the realms of urgent – and, yes, Wagnerian – music-drama, where it surely, ideally, belongs.

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