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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 13: Elgar, ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ Soloists, Hallé, Mark Elder, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 24 July 2005 (ED)

Gerontius: Paul Groves (tenor)
The Angel: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
The Priest and The Angel of the Agony: Matthew Best (bass)
Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
Hallé / Mark Elder


Dealing as it does with the transcendental theme of life and death, The Dream of Gerontius is at once a questing expression of deeply held personal belief and timelessly universal in its acknowledgement of a power beyond human comprehension. It is somehow strangely fitting that a work so English and of troubled birth should now be revitalised and hold new relevance in these uncertain times, so that the music springs as if newly printed from the page.


Of course Elgar’s setting of Newman’s dramatic poem has an illustrious history, and one with which the Hallé, Barbirolli, and indeed Henry Wood are indelibly linked. Richard Strauss proclaimed Elgar a ‘progressive master’ after hearing the work. There are perhaps echoes of Verdi in the ‘Sanctus fortis’ (Part I) and it forms in some respects at least a forerunner of Britten’s War Requiem in the choral writing that ends Part II. Such operatic names and parallels too are not entirely out of place when discussing Gerontius: Elgar was keen for the work not to be too ‘reverential’ in performance. Indeed, the composer’s own fragmentary recordings show something verging on the operatic.


This performance did not look longingly back to the past, but built on it through acknowledgement and inference, yet it was decidedly modern and absolutely Elgarian.


In this his first Gerontius, Paul Groves showed the reflective aspects to better effect, floating the high lying vocal line with ease, until placed under pressure when the voice developed a hard edge. Principal to his success though, as with the other soloists, was his care with dynamics, diction and word-pointing to elucidate meaning from the text. His asides in the opening ‘Jesu Maria’, caught the sense of personal anguish – this was a man in the grip of death – and later became a fully questioning Soul, that was seeking yet growing in awareness.


Alice Coote’s Angel appeared as an Elgarian Erda of the heavens with her disclosures of great mysteries that belong to the hereafter. In tone her voice recalled Janet Baker, yet her use of text was totally her own. Thrilling in declamation but also rapt in wonderment of quieter moments, the lengthy passages with Gerontius were never without feeling or deep humanity.


Matthew Best’s Priest at the end of Part I urged on Gerontius’ soul compellingly and fully-toned, backed by the splendour of the Hallé brass. The Angel of the Agony brought a half-pleading-half justifying interpretation.


Throughout Elder lent not only the wisdom of an experienced Elgar conductor but also the instinct of an operatic one. Consequently his dramatic approach ensured it moved swiftly for the most part, though not without attention to detail, and allowed dramatic contrasts in the writing to come through.


Orchestrally, a slightly ragged Prelude aside, it was a tightly disciplined and characterful performance, demonstrating that the Hallé of today indeed lives up to its illustrious past. Responsive to Elder’s incisive direction they plunged through the score negotiating difficulties of balance and mixing sonorities to thrilling effect. In the last they were aided by the contribution of the choruses, the embodiment of meditative angelic assistants and demons of unusual strength and directness, though of less sarcastic humour than is occasionally encountered.


Elgar was in his heart most proud of Gerontius, and famously inscribed the score, "This is the best of me …this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory." The Hallé, Elder and all concerned showed themselves equally deserving and once more demonstrated their place at the forefront of great music making.


Evan Dickerson





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