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S & H Concert Review

Sir Edward Elgar: ‘The Dream of Gerontius,’ soloists, CBSO and City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 17th April 2004 (BK)


Sakari Oramo’s reputation as an Elgar conductor is already very well established. In January of this year, his performance of Gerontius in Helsinki with the Finnish National Radio Orchestra received excellent reviews, despite the fact that the promised tenor soloist, Ben Heppner, cancelled due to illness. There was particular praise in Finland though for the CBS chorus who accompanied Mr. Oramo and also for the mezzo-soprano soloist Jane Irwin. It was gratifying to hear both chorus and mezzo soloist in Birmingham this weekend, where they repeated their Helsinki successes.

The Dream of Gerontius needs an exceptional chorus. The music is complicated and difficult, ranging as it does from extended passages of fortissimo writing for double choir, through the drama of the almost operatic Demons’ Chorus, to moments of infinite tenderness for the Angelicals music. The CBS Chorus managed all of these demands with an ease and steadiness of ensemble that few large choirs can achieve consistently. They are a deeply impressive choir and a credit to Simon Halsey, their Chorus Director.

Gerontius is sometimes called the English Parsifal and its tenor part has been described as Wagnerian. Tom Randle’s approach to the role of Gerontius was certainly operatic and remarkably muscular to begin with, perhaps too much so for the representation of an old man who is reaching the end of his life. Fortunately however, Mr. Randle settled down quickly into a nicely expressive reading of the Soul’s journey from the moment of death through to its grateful acceptance of Purgatory and the ultimate achievement of perfection. There are so many opportunities for self-indulgent drama in this role that it was refreshing to find a tenor who resisted this particular earthly temptation.

Jane Irwin’s Angel was sung very beautifully indeed. Her voice is clearly an instrument of considerable power but one that is also capable of great emotional expressiveness. The ‘Alleluia’ phrases in My work is done, My task is o’er were both tender and quietly exultant and Ms Irwin’s account of the role overall portrayed a kind of joyful reverence, completely in keeping with her character’s place and function. Her presentation was somehow extremely feminine, a feature which became even more effective when contrasted with and complemented by bass-baritone James Rutherford’s strong and very masculine Angel of the Agony.

The CBSO played wonderfully well for Sakari Oramo, whose understanding of English music seems to deepen by the month. Together with soloists and chorus, Mr. Oramo and his orchestra made this a truly memorable account of Elgar’s extraordinary work. It is the choral singing that sticks in the mind though for this was a superb demonstration of what properly directed and well motivated amateur voices can achieve. Mr Halsey and his staff are to be congratulated.

Bill Kenny



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