The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) & James Rutherford (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 26 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In general, Elgar doesn’t get much of a look-in in Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise survey of twentieth-century music, but The Dream of Gerontius had its premiere in 1900 (for many the last year of the nineteenth-century) and the work greatly impressed Richard Strauss. So, presumably, it is not without ‘Noise’ potential. As James MacMillan, in his Royal Philharmonic Society lecture earlier this same day, pointed out, Elgar took quite a risk within a vigorously Protestant establishment nailing his Roman Catholic colours to the mast by setting the Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem about the Christian soul’s release through death to the process of redemption and salvation – especially since Cardinal Newman (beatified by the Pope in 2010) left the Church of England to go to Rome. As is well documented, after Elgar’s death some Anglican cathedrals would not allow performances of the work, except for one where Newman’s poem was de-catholicised. One wonders what was removed – all that Popish Latin, I suppose – and, more to the point, what replaced it.
MacMillan was discussing whether artists are shackled or liberated by religion, using the example of The Dream of Gerontius, for many people “of any faith or none” one of the great marriages of the visionary in music and words. That was certainly what Mark Elder revealed in this performance – as Debussy said of Parsifal, this too is music “lit from within”. As it happened, Elder played down the Parsifal element in such a way to make it seem almost subliminal, allowing Elgar’s specifically English mysticism to glow with an unmistakably theatrical fervour.
The older you get, the more Cardinal Newman’s words “this emptying out of each constituent” seem a reasonable summation of failing physicality, and Paul Groves throughout showed a keen sympathy with the poem’s power. Sometimes he slipped into traditional English oratorio mode – and The Dream of Gerontius is a work that continues to subvert oratorio expectations – and at Gerontius’s climactic moments you wished for a more ringing top to his voice, but this seasoned Gerontius (he sang it with the LPO as recently as March 2011 conducted by Edward Gardner) gathered text and music together with considerable intensity, the wealth of detail in phrasing, weight and shading giving endless clues to the range of his insight.
James Rutherford – who replaced the indisposed Brindley Sherratt – was on stunningly urgent form as the Priest and Angel of the Agony, the focussed, dark beam of his voice used to shattering effect in his two solos. Sarah Connolly is, as it were, one of The Dream of Gerontius’s archangels. She sang with her characteristic warmth and radiance, giving a gentle momentum to the Angel’s dialogue with Gerontius and, at the end of “Softly and gently”, fading her voice into the choir’s to magical effect. What a consistently wonderful artist she is. The two choirs had all the necessary power for the big choral moments, with a marvellously terraced sound that suggested vast distances, and the ‘Demons’ Chorus’ was as near to a vocal realisation of one of those great medieval Doom paintings as I’ve heard.
Elder’s slow tempo for the opening orchestral summonses initiated the stature of the performance as a whole, and his spacious conducting let all the pictorial detail Elgar lavished on the score to make its mark, matched by the LPO’s luminous playing.