The Dream of Gerontius

Elgar
The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
Matthew Best (bass-baritone)

Hallé Choir
Hallé Youth Choir
London Philharmonic Choir

Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 24 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The start did not auger well, with unison phrases at the commencement of the Prelude being less than unanimous, but this performance gained in stature and finally ensured one’s appreciation of – and admiration for – Elgar’s first choral masterpiece. Indeed it is interesting to reflect that the choralworks that preceded it give little hint of the mastery Elgar was todemonstrate in “The Dream of Gerontius”, so confident is his handling of large forces and his musical material.

The darkly brooding prelude – infused with “Parsifal” inflections ofvarious kinds – built to a strong climax and Mark Elder had ensured that the composer’s meticulous dynamic and expression indications were scrupulously observed here and throughout.

Elgar had a preference for a ‘non-oratorio’ tenor for the role ofGerontius and Paul Groves’s extensive operatic experience certainly places him in this category. His was a dramatic, at times virile, reading. In the first part, one might argue he sounded much too healthy for a man in despair on his deathbed. But Groves’s fine tone and firm delivery gave much pleasure. He was powerful and ardent when required, yet his gentle exchanges in Part Two with the Angel were reflective and touching.

As the Angel, Alice Coote was extremely impressive. Her warm distinctive timbre was ideal for the passages of consolation – not least in her ‘farewell’ which, mercifully, avoided all traces of unwarranted sentimentality – yet her lower register was strong and deployed dramatically at times. She sometimes took the higher note ‘options’ given in the score, which included a really thrilling top A in her “Alleluia!” just before the moment when the Soul of Gerontius is given a glance of the Almighty. The orchestral build up to that remarkable chord where, as the composer instructs, “for one moment must every instrument exert its fullest force”, was well-judged, though the ‘moment’ itself might have been even more cataclysmic.

Matthew Best was imposing and authoritative in the bass’s two very different solos. As the Priest at the end of Part One, his commanding tone was ideal, whilst his imploring as The Angel of the Agony was just as convincing.

The choral singing was strong, responsive and well-disciplined. One or two mannerisms of phrasing cannot be blamed on the singers. The ferocity of the Demons was made to seem much less amusing than can sometimes be the case, whilst the refulgence of “Praise to the Holiest” was thrilling. Here, Elder could have allowed the ‘maestoso’ phrases to have expanded a little more, and the gradations of accelerating pace been less abrupt. Nevertheless, this was a viscerally exciting reading of this chorus though, regrettably, applause broke out at its conclusion, nullifying the dramatic ppp for organ pedal, timpani and bass drumafter the radiant – and very loud – C major chord for chorus and full orchestra.

The Hallé Youth Choir deserve special commendation for its excellent singing of the ‘semi-chorus’ music.

Mark Elder took the view, quite rightly, of ‘Gerontius’ being a dramatic work, rather than one in the English oratorio tradition. Thus there was a welcome sense of onward motion, and unnecessary lingering was judiciously avoided, preventing some of Gerontius’s music from becoming too lachrymose. He ensured that Elgar’s use of recurring motives registered fully and, one or two imprecisions aside, steered his forces compellingly throughthis wonderful score.



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