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Performances

Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]
16 Apr 2012

The Dream of Gerontius, Barbican Hall

Edward Elgar was given a copy of Cardinal Newman’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ — a 900-line poem depicting the journey of an old man’s soul after death — as a wedding present in 1889.

Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; James Rutherford,

Above: Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

He later said that ideas for a setting had been “soaking in my mind for at least eight years” when he set about preparing a libretto for a new work to be performed at the 1900 Birmingham Festival. At the end of the score Elgar inscribed words from Ruskin: “this is the best of me”. Unfortunately, technical deficiencies and inadequate rehearsal resulted in a less than satisfactory first performance, leading the composer to despair, “I always said God was against art … I have allowed my heart to open once - it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever”. A little melodramatic perhaps … but a sign of Elgar’s complex and at times troubled faith, and of the work’s importance to him.

Preparations for this performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were not entirely smooth either, with both conductor, Andris Nilson (owing to a family illness), and tenor Toby Spence forced to withdraw in the preceding days. However, under the baton of the CBSO’s principal guest conductor, Edward Gardner, and with Robert Murray stepping into Gerontius’ shoes, there was certainly no danger of a repeat of the chaotic premiere. In lesser hands, this intricate, mysterious work can become muddy and messy; Gardner summoned from his performers a controlled piece of musical drama that captured both the work’s theatricality and its poetry.

Robert Murray has the vocal resources to meet the considerable demands of the role; his voice pleasingly balanced restraint and passion, and he was consistently attentive to the dynamic markings, though never slavishly so, bringing genuine expressivity to moments of power and poignancy. Although a little diffident at the start, Murray had the confidence to trust his introspective reading, and not to indulge in excessively showy operatics. His upper range possesses emotive impact; he has the power to carry above even the most surging orchestral passages without undue strain, but also the poise to float the quietest pianissimo. He conveyed the old man’s restless anxiety in Part 1 when facing death, and displayed rhetorical vigour in his heroic prayer for God’s strength “Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus”. And a sonorous intensity marked the Soul’s climactic cry, “Take me away, and in the lowest depth there let me be”.

Murray’s Part 2 duet with the Angel, sung by Sarah Connolly, took a little while to get into its stride, but was moving and convincing. As the Angel guides Gerontius’ soul, Connolly’s rich, burnished mezzo combined strength and tenderness, expressing profound sentiment but never sentimental. She has a strong lower range, and the text was thoughtfully nuanced. The Angel’s farewell blessing at the close of Part 2 was truly beautiful — open, warm and full of hope and promise. And, after the work’s emotional storms, the composure of Connolly’s full-toned final lullaby, “Soft and gentle, dearly ransomed Soul” brought a satisfying equanimity.

Fittingly dramatic interventions were made by James Rutherford, first in his stirring invocation as the Priest at the close of Part 1, “Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”, as Gardner drove forward with a thrilling accelerando, and later as the Angel of Agony at the corresponding conclusion to Part 2. Rutherford’s weight of tone and long-breathed phrasing added much liturgical authority and gravity.

All three soloists displayed a sure appreciation of Elgar’s declamatory, arioso style, allowing the musical phrases to breathe while retaining a naturalistic accentuation of text.

Gardner was totally in command of the work’s motivic complexities, tonal ambiguities and flexible formal qualities. From the hushed beginnings of the Prologue, he crafted a seamless orchestral tapestry: as clarinets, bassoons and violas introduced the plaintive opening theme, initially unaccompanied and then supported by pensive double basses and low woodwind, the symphonic seeds from which the work unfolds were made evident. Gardner never allowed the orchestral forces to overwhelm the singers but ensured too that that his players did not take second place, that the instrumental voices were equal partners in the musical conversation, involved in the expressive drama and commentating on the action. On a few occasions — in the Prelude and building to the climactic “Take me away” - the tempi seemed a little on slow side, but Gardner did successfully build momentum in the climactic passages. He is at home with the theatricality of the work but, while he did not miss a single gesture or intimation in detailed score, he was never melodramatic.

Elgar makes huge demands upon the chorus, and the CBSO Chorus assuredly rose to the challenge, mastering the contrapuntal complexities, displaying depth of tone and rhythmic vitality, and articulating the words with clarity. They convincingly adopted a variety of roles and explored a range of colours: as Gerontius' ‘Assistants’ praying earnestly by his bedside in a burial chorus, their appeals to God to “Rescue him … in this his evil hour” were vibrant and energised; in contrast, the sopranos’ closing invocation in Part 1, “And may thy place today be found in peace … through the Same, through Christ Our Lord” was shimmering and translucent. A pure, centred tone characterised the Part 2 Chorus of Angelicals, “Praise to the Holiest in his height”, beautifully shaped phrases enhanced by the gentle harp accompaniment.

The Demons’ Chorus was a tour de force: powerful unisons above whirling strings and flashing piccolo shrieks made great impact, as during a vigorously exchange with the orchestra, Gardner crafted impressive motivic coherence. Here, as throughout, vividness was never achieved at the expense of clarity and accuracy.

This performance attained rich emotional depths. Religiosity was balanced with humanity, as in moments such as the Assistants’ imploring appeal, “Be merciful, be gracious, spare him, Lord”, where the strained timbre of the violins’ high G-strings possessed both an eloquent power and intimations of human frailty.

The most electrifying moment in the work comes as the Soul finally departs, to be “Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God”. Here Gardner conjured a thrilling crescendo, building to an awe-inspiring climactic discord from the full orchestra complemented with organ and percussion. The moment of insight is brief — a dazzling but momentary glimpse of truth — followed by stillness, as the sforzando eruption gives way instantly to a tremulous pianissimo. In this blinding moment, simultaneous conveying both faith and doubt, Gardner and his performers fully captured the universality of Elgar’s message.

Claire Seymour

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