Prom 59: London Philharmonic Orchestra – Edward Gardner conducts Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius

The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Gerontius – Allan Clayton
Priest / Angel of the Agony – James Platt
Angel – Jamie Barton

Hallé & London Philharmonic Choirs

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 31 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

On paper, the text of Elgar’s Gerontius, extracted from John Henry Newman’s eponymous poem, promises little by way of drama or narrative – not much more, perhaps, than a poetic evocation of Christian beliefs about mortality and the nature of the soul. (As an attempt at literature, Newman’s total absorption of Catholic doctrine calls to mind Benjamin Jowett’s comment that his conscience was taken out and the Church put in its place.) But, married to the epic flow of Elgar’s score, the work becomes a compelling music drama, charting the psychological and emotional journey of an allegorical Everyman through death and beyond. 

Edward Gardner’s lithe reading brought out a due sense of narrative momentum and urgency by vividly highlighting a wealth of orchestral detail within an overall steady grasp of each Part’s continuous stream of music (given here without an interval, which also helped to sustain a unified trajectory). That drama was illumined further by the general transparency of the London Philharmonic’s playing, tending to sustain serenity and radiance, rather than a fateful, deathly pallor over the work. If, for Debussy, the score of Parsifal (a profound influence on the Elgar)was as though ‘lit from within’, then that was also true here.

The instrumental preludes to each Part were like small tone poems in themselves, the first opening with a hollow, but almost silken and consoling melodic line, before building up to an impassioned climax, more like a resumé of Gerontius’s life (a mini Tod und Verklärung as it were) than a fearful vision of impending judgement. At the opening of the second Part, as the soul of Gerontius arrives in Heaven to “hear no more the busy beat of time”, the music paradoxically evinced a dance-like rhythmic alacrity, very much bound up with Elgar’s notated 12/8 meter, evoking the freedom of a realm beyond space and time with a wispy, floating transparency in the strings. Many other felicitous details demonstrated the LPO’s attentiveness to the music – one memorable example from the strings, again, being the mysteriously distant but expansive chords accompanying a section of Gerontius’s opening monologue as he reflects on his departing life, presaging such visionary passages in scores by Charles Ives or Alan Hovhaness.

Allan Clayton gave a masterful account of the title role – or roles, seeing as it is divided between Gerontius’s dying human form and his eternal soul, sounding coolly and calmly vulnerable in the former case (if not particularly pained) but attaining a ringing urgency for his prayer ‘Sanctus fortis’; and aptly lean and disembodied in the latter. Jamie Barton – clad in a glittering gold dress as the Angel – was more strikingly extrovert, certainly in her upper range, cutting through with a certain degree of brittleness and voluptuousness in tone, though with a startling, almost Kundry-like shriek on the octave leap for one “Alleluia”. But lower down her vocal register was more generalised, if nobly expressive, inciting a warm line from the solo horn at the end of her first monologue. James Platt projected a booming, stentorian authority as the Priest in the first Part, a vocal dead ringer for John Tomlinson, but more assuringly lyrical as the Angel of the Agony in the second.

 Just as dramatically vibrant were the combined forces of the Hallé and London Philharmonic Choirs with precise and idiomatic ensemble work in their various guises as the Assistants to the dying Gerontius, the Choir of Angelicals, or the Demons. In the two great set choral pieces (Elgar of course right to confound the expectations of friends by not primly setting ‘Praise to the holiest’ to the existing hymn tune) they presented a solid edifice of sound, but also were dynamically responsive to the impetus of the music.

Overall this was a fresh, alert performance, happily avoiding sentimental religiosity on all counts.

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