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Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), David Rendall (tenor), Alistair Miles (bass), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor), Barbican, 11.12.2005 (JPr)



First the good news: I liked the restyled London Symphony Orchestra printed programme that I saw for the first time for this concert (11 December) of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. They admirably set out to entertain and inform, and thanks to sponsorship these were given away free. That the coloured pages and small font size made this interesting information difficult to read is something that will be corrected no doubt in future.

Further good news was the experienced Elgar conducting and outstanding orchestral playing, as well as choral singing. The bad news was the lunchtime cancellation of Ben Heppner (another long-term Heldentenor casualty?) and, even more contentiously, the work, The Dream of Gerontius, itself.

I had also part of the answer to my query about the layout of the BBC SO orchestra posed in my Mahler 9 review on this website. In The Times (Monday 12 December) article ‘Ear-plugs for orchestras at risk of being deafened by their music’ Marc Stevens, concert manager of LSO, was quoted as saying, ‘We’re experimenting with changing the layout of the orchestra. Having first and second strings facing each other across the conductor seems to help.’ So that might explain the BBC SO layout and the position of the players here too. On this occasion cellos were again to the left with the harps this time nearly in front of the conductor toward the back of the platform.

In the ‘brief guide to Elgar’ in the programme he is described as being ‘forced to continue teaching long after the desire to compose full-time had taken hold … a frustrated, pessimistic man’ – replace ‘compose’ with ‘write’ and that could have been a description of the author of this review!

Perhaps I need to hear The Dream of Gerontius live more than once but I did not recognise a ‘national monument’ unless it is of the ‘Dome’ variety – an idea of some potential, poorly executed. In 1898, Elgar was asked to write a new work for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival. Gerontius is based on a 900-line poem of presumably unctuous piety and doctrine by a convert to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Elgar used rather less than half the poem to concentrate on the story of Gerontius’ death and the journey of his soul into the next world. It was unsuccessfully premièred in Birmingham and Elgar exploded ‘I always said God was against art … I allowed my heart to open once – it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse for ever!’ Julius Buths, a German choirmaster who organises a Lower Rhine Festival, was present in the audience for that first performance and put it on with much greater success in Düsseldorf in each of the next two years. Gerontius then began its steady climb towards becoming the most popular of all Elgar’s choral works.

The music is variously described as Wagnerian; according to Stephen Johnson’s programme note ‘Elgar learnt … from Wagner … so thoroughly that the listener hears only authentic Elgar.’ I would put it differently; despite his obvious admiration for Richard Wagner (he was a visitor to the Bayreuth Festival) he had actually learnt little. In fact the composer that most came to mind in very many ways was Verdi (interestingly enough Elgar wrote a symphonic study of Falstaff in 1913). Choruses from Trovatore, Otello and his Requiem came to mind and never more so than in the Demons’ ‘Ha! Ha!’ which so reminded me of Ballo. Yes … Gerontius sings ‘Mary, pray for me’ which is redolent of Tannhäuser and there was a fleeting moment of Meistersinger with the choir of Angelicals but it must be remembered that the conductor of that disappointing first performance was Hans Richter and had there been anything Wagnerian here he would surely have recognised it and taken more interest in the music.

Take the Prelude for instance; there is a slow heavy tread played by low woodwind and double basses which in Mahler’s hands would have been Gerontius’ fading pulse, and it is famed for including no less than ten themes repeated as Leitmotifs through the rest of the work. For me (forgive me Elgarians) it made me think of the overture to a ballet or musical.

I don’t think Elgar had the personal conviction to produce a worthwhile libretto and a finale of any real drama, engagement or ‘enlightenment’ leaving us with ‘Soft and gently’ by the Angel, and the simultaneous singing of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ by the Angelicals and a Psalm by the Souls. All rather beautiful, but all very fey.

As an aside Elgar was never very precious about his libretto as he made changes that altered its emphasis prior to a performance at the 1902 Three Choirs Festival. Because of objections by the Bishop of Worcester it was ‘purged of “popish” elements’ (as the programme had it). This word would be better spelt in 2005 as ‘Pope-ish’ as ‘pop’ has an altogether different meaning.

This sense of a journey unfulfilled extended to Ben Heppner’s late replacement David Rendall. He has had a long career from Puccini to Otello and Tristan. He voice has always had that bleating quality to it and never more so than in a very nervous ‘Jesu, Maria – I am near to death’ opening. I understand that Gerontius is supposed to go through feelings of desperation, terror, supplication and then exhausted calm. None of these emotions were recognisable from Rendall’s forced, dry, stentorian tones in all his utterances. He looked very uncomfortable and a soul in real torment but he must be given credit for saving the evening.

Whilst Rendall often seemed to be responding to the music and seemed a fraction off the beat, Anne Sofie von Otter was a supremely musical Angel. Perhaps despite her flawless English even she may not have had the oratorio-like fruitiness this mezzo part requires but alongside Alistair Miles’s dark-hued and portentous solos belying his slender physique, she raised the individual vocal contributions just a notch above the ordinary despite such a dispiriting Gerontius.

Sir Colin Davis is the latest in a distinguish line of successors to Hans Richter and Edward Elgar himself as principal conductor of the LSO. He clearly relishes this score and was totally blameless as he conjured up a faultless ensemble from his orchestra, as well as, well-projected and characterful singing from the London Symphony Chorus.

In conclusion, I cannot see how it is worth releasing this Gerontius on LSO Live. As disappointing as this would be for Sir Colin Davis, he deserved this to be a success and something to add to his legacy of the fine LSO Elgar symphonies set given away by the sponsors to selected audience members at Sunday’s concert.



© Jim Pritchard




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