The Dream of Gerontius

Elgar
The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Auty (tenor)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Chamber Choir

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Robert Dean


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 23 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For John Ruskin, one of the chief virtues of Gothic architecture as a process was its ability to maximise simultaneously both corporate harmony and individual artistic expression, resulting in not only a rich and varied fabric teeming with life and colour but also a level of ‘job satisfaction’ that would be the envy of many a modern counterpart in the building trade. And if the parallel with what the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra is trying to achieve in today’s world of orchestral homogenisation was not already obvious before tonight, then it is now.

The distinctive features of this orchestra are essentially threefold: firstly, it relies solely on income generated through private patronage and ticket sales, rather than on the pernicious system of state funding which keeps many a large modern orchestra afloat but which also encourages both artistic ossification and financial wastage; secondly, it has revived the use of ‘period’ instruments from around the turn of last century (gut strings, wooden flutes and narrow-bore brass), resulting in a beautifully variegated orchestral timbre and more manageable sonority; and thirdly, as a direct consequence of the preceding two factors, its individual members are able to enjoy an enhanced freedom of individual expression and enlarged ability to truly listen to their fellow musicians – all of which was very much in evidence in this superb performance of Elgar’s masterpiece “The Dream of Gerontius”.

The multiplicity of Catholic and catholic influences on both Cardinal Newman’s poem and Elgar’s setting were flashed before the audience in a series of unostentatiously pointed aperçus: Peter Auty’s clear, restrained tenor giving Gerontius a strangely disembodied hue while still on the deathbed; Brindley Sherratt as both the Priest and Angel of the Agony dignified and sweetly, pleadingly stentorian respectively; Monica Groop’s Angel thrillingly tender and ‘human’ (despite her diction’s lacking the clarity of her fellow soloists); the chorus’s being able to delineate shifts both of mood and mode (the textually Dante-esque and musically Verdian sequence where the cries of the Demons are heard being a real high point) perfectly integrated with the orchestra’s ability to likewise respond to the text in a multiplicity of ways, whether in terms of balance, phrase or colour. All this under the direction of Robert Dean, who really made the most of the broad palette at his disposal to offer up a soundworld that Elgar himself would surely have had little trouble in recognising.

For me, however, the most significant aspect of this performance was the way in which the unique sound of the orchestra, when read against that of many of its more standard brethren, managed to bring to the surface the utter strangeness and abstractness of Gerontius’s (soul’s) experience. Very powerful, very moving, and a most auspicious Royal Festival Hall debut for the orchestra.

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