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Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius Sarah Connolly (Mezzo Soprano) James Oxley (Tenor) Roderick Williams (Bass) Gloucester Choral Society, The Regency Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, Gloucester Cathedral 1.4. 2006 (JQ)


Gloucester Cathedral is, together with the cathedrals of Hereford and Worcester, one of the three homes of the oldest music festival in the world, the Three Choirs Festival. The Dream of Gerontius has been an integral part of Three Choirs repertoire ever since 1902, when it was performed at Hereford, under Elgar’s baton, just two years after the disastrous première in Birmingham. Since then it’s been performed probably sixty times at Three Choirs Festival concerts. Gloucester first heard the work at the 1910 Festival, once again conducted by Elgar. This occasion was notable also for the fact that Gerontius was preceded by the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also conducted by its composer. What a concert that must have been!

Since that 1910 performance Gloucester Cathedral must have been the venue for countless performances of Gerontius, many of them, of course, unconnected with the Three Choirs. Indeed, I myself have had the good fortune to sing in three performances of the work in that wonderful building. The performance by Gloucester Choral Society on April 1 must surely have been one of the very finest of those many renditions.

Before commenting on the performance itself may I say how strongly I applauded the decision of Andrew Nethsingha to dispense with an interval between Parts One and Two, other than for a brief pause of two or three minutes. I was just as glad that a specific request was made beforehand that the audience refrain from applauding until the very end of the work. This meant that any dissipation of tension between the two parts of the work was minimised. Surely all performances of Gerontius should be given in this way?

Inevitably any performance of Gerontius stands or falls chiefly by the quality of the soloists. Fortunately the soloists for this performance had been chosen with great care and all were on top form. The Gerontius, James Oxley, has, happily, become something of a regular at concerts in this part of the world but on this occasion he surpassed all the previous excellent performances that I’ve heard him give. Elgar made very great demands on his tenor soloist in writing the role of Gerontius. On the one hand the singer needs an heroic, almost heldentenor, strength for the Big Moments such as ‘Sanctus Fortis’ in Part One or ‘Take me away’ towards the end of Part Two. However, the same singer needs to be able to sing many extended passages, especially in Part Two, with the sensitivity and intimacy of a lieder singer. I thought Oxley met both challenges superbly. His is a relatively light voice but there’s no lack of steel and power when that’s required. Throughout the whole evening his delivery was consistently easy and clear. From my seat about two-thirds of the way down the nave – a significant distance in such a large acoustic – I could hear him (and, indeed, the other soloists) with complete clarity and every word carried. Above the stave Oxley seemed to sing quite effortlessly, right up to and including the top B flat at ‘In Thine own agony’. Though he was required to project into a very large building there was never the slightest suspicion of forced tone and yet he had no difficulty in riding Elgar’s large orchestra.

But besides sheer technical excellence, he brought great intelligence and understanding to the music. He made every word tell and his singing always had great commitment. ‘Sanctus Fortis’ was, as it should be, a highpoint. Here Oxley combined manly strength with the requisite amount of vulnerability. The dialogue with The Angel in Part Two was especially satisfying. I thought that perhaps he didn’t quite have enough dramatic weight for the opening of ‘Take me away’ but that’s a relatively small point when set against all the many felicities of a deeply convinced and convincing performance. On the evidence of this performance I’d suggest that James Oxley has it in him to become the outstanding exponent of this role in his generation (record companies, please take note!) and I’m very glad indeed to have heard him as Gerontius.

Recently I reviewed and very much enjoyed a recital CD by Sarah Connolly and so I was keenly anticipating the chance to hear her in one of the greatest mezzo roles in oratorio. My expectations were more than met. In reviewing her recital disc I praised her evident ability to communicate with an audience. What was obvious purely from hearing her was even more obvious when the visual aspect was added. Here we had another soloist who was just as keen and as able to engage both with her audience and with the words and music as were her two male peers. Miss Connolly has a voice of great richness and a very impressive range. She produced lovely sounds throughout the whole compass of her voice and the high notes were thrillingly sung, with no evidence of strain. Like her colleagues she projected the words with great clarity at all times. Passages such as ‘You cannot now cherish a wish’ and ‘A presage falls upon thee’ were gloriously and expansively phrased while the superbly atmospheric section, ‘There was a mortal who is now above’, was floated beautifully. After these comments you won’t be surprised to hear that the Angel’s Farewell was radiant and eloquent. There was only one minor oddity: a distinctly odd pronunciation of the word “subvenite” in the passage beginning ‘It is the voice of friends around thy bed.’ It sounded like an Anglicisation of the pronunciation but I’ve never heard it done this way and I thought it didn’t sound right. This, however, was a very minor blemish in an otherwise wonderful performance.

It seems to me that any good bass soloist in Gerontius should leave the audience lamenting that Elgar gave the bass relatively little to do. This was certainly true of Roderick Williams on this occasion. He has tremendous physical presence and always looks the part. He made a commanding and dignified Priest, sending the Soul of Gerontius on its journey at the end of Part One. The two bass solos in the work are very different in character and in vocal demands. In an ideal world one would have them sung by different singers (as used to happen often in the early days of the work’s history and is the case on the famous and wonderful Heddle Nash/Sargent recording). Inevitably, sheer economics make this an unrealistic proposition nowadays but it does mean that often a soloist does greater justice to one of the two solos than the other. I felt this was the case here. For all his considerable merits I didn’t think Roderick Williams was quite as successful as the Angel of the Agony. That role ideally calls for a darker, more sonorous bass voice than he has at his command. Once he reached that wonderful passage ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour and bid them come to thee’ the tessitura suited him much better. His singing of this second solo was very fine, overall, but I just missed that last bit of dramatic punch, which would have made it an unqualified success. But it was still marvellous to hear a singer who I greatly admire sing these two solos.

So the soloists were outstanding. What of other aspects of the performance? The choir was splendid throughout. I guess there were about 120 singers in the chorus and it’s no mean feat for a choir to project into such a large building over a full Elgar orchestra. The choir had clearly been prepared superbly by Andrew Nethsingha and their singing was incisive and committed. I followed the performance with a vocal score and it was evident that great care had been taken to ensure that Elgar’s copious instructions regarding dynamics were accurately – but not pedantically – observed. When it’s done like this it makes all the difference and I take my hat off to the choir for some fervent singing that was very faithful to Elgar’s requirements. The great outburst at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was as thrilling as it should be, both times it occurs and in that chorus I particularly admired the lightness in the ¾ double choir section that follows the second eruption of ‘Praise to the Holiest’. Here the choir could have been singing Bach, so cleanly and clearly did they enunciate the notes. But this didn’t mean the singing was lightweight, for the chorus built to a superb, affirmative final climax.

The playing of the Regency Sinfonia was similarly impressive. At the very start those cruelly exposed first few bars were quite a bit louder than pianissimo, which meant that an atmosphere of mystery was not really established. However, the players were very soon into their collective stride and the quality of their playing and their attention to dynamic detail gave much pleasure. The percussion section had something of a field day in the Demon’s Chorus but it was suitably thrilling and the music can take it. I was most impressed by the number of small instrumental details that registered quite naturally during the course of the performance. That’s no mean achievement in the acoustics of the cathedral and this success owed much to the skill of the players and, of course, to Andrew Nethsingha’s balancing of his forces.

Overall I was most impressed with Mr. Nethsingha’s grasp of the work and its structure. Just once or twice I felt his tempi were a touch too fleet. One such was in Part One at ‘Be merciful’ where the speed that was adopted meant that the choir didn’t sound sufficiently supplicatory and, crucially, that the orchestral bass line sounded rushed, lacking the ideal implacable tread. At the end of Part One, when the chorus follows the bass solo with ‘Go in the name of Angels and Archangels’ I felt that the speed was a little excessive, meaning that the choir’s quavers sounded too staccato. Possibly this was an intentional choice of speed to prevent muddy choral singing in the resonant acoustic but I think a fractionally broader tempo would have given the music more majesty at this point.

Those two isolated examples apart, I felt that Nethsingha’s pacing of the score was splendid. He observed virtually all the many, often minute, modifications of tempo that Elgar wrote into the score – not all conductors do – and as a result his interpretation sounded authentic and idiomatic. Crucially he seemed to see the whole work in a single span and he shaped both the details along the way and the overall piece most convincingly. His decision regarding the question of an interval, which I mentioned earlier, was surely part of this vision. I thought his conception of the piece and the evident detailed preparation of the chorus that he’d done amounted to a pretty significant achievement.

After he’d completed Gerontius Elgar famously appended to the score a quotation beginning “This is the best of me.” I think that the performers in this concert could justifiably adopt those words for themselves. Elgar and his masterpiece were very well served indeed by this performance, which fully deserved the ovation from the substantial audience, of which I was glad to be a part.

John Quinn

Gloucester Choral Society Website






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