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.
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 Angelical’s 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.
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.
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.
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.