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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Three Choirs Festival (3) : Sir Edward Elgar  The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38 Sarah Connolly (Mezzo Soprano); James Gilchrist (Tenor); Roderick Williams (Bass); Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Nethsingha Gloucester Cathedral, 7.8. 2007 (JQ)


To mark the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth the Three Choirs Festival programme includes several of his major works. Perhaps the most keenly anticipated of these was The Dream of Gerontius, for which a capacity audience assembled in Gloucester Cathedral. I approached it with particular interest for two reasons. In the first place the three soloists are all leading British singers who I greatly admire. Secondly, the performance was to be under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, who I had heard give a marvellous performance of the work in this same venue in April 2006 (See Review.) Sadly my expectations were not completely met.

Only a few nights earlier I had heard James Gilchrist deliver an outstanding performance in Britten’s War Requiem (Review.) Unfortunately his performance as Gerontius was nowhere near as good. He started well, suggesting the frailty of a man on his deathbed. However almost as soon as he was required to sing loudly and above the stave it was clear that all was not well. There was neither power nor ring in the upper register of his voice and when he got to the climatic top B flat at “In thine own agony” there was simply nothing there. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this was not because he was not up to the part. My companion at the concert, a highly experienced singing teacher herself, was certain there was something amiss with the voice. Moreover, she had been at a performance of the same work in
Cheltenham just a few weeks earlier and she commented to me that Gilchrist had been fully the master of the role on that occasion, with no evidence of strain at the top of the voice. To hear this much-admired singer so evidently below par was a cruel disappointment to me, as it must have been to him as well.

Having said that, if on this occasion the heroic passages of the part were beyond his powers there was still much about his performance to enjoy in the quieter, more lyrical passages. As I said, his opening was good and at “Novissima hora est” he sounded appropriately weary and then sang “Into thy hands” fervently. In the circumstances it was not surprising that most of the best aspects of his performance occurred in Part Two. Here, singing opposite a wonderful Angel, of whom more in a moment, he sang intelligently and eloquently. The whole of the dialogue between the Soul and the Angel was put across very well by these two gifted singers. They combined a suitable degree of urgency with a sense of spirituality in singing these pages and Gilchrist made a full and very satisfying contribution. Unfortunately he wasn’t really up to ‘Take me away’ but that was no real surprise in the circumstances. One small detail I noticed in this final solo was that at cue 123 he took the lower alternative at “and go above.” The only other tenor I’ve ever heard do this is Peter Pears on his recording with Britten. I’ve always liked this; it seems to me to be a better, more logical line and in the Novello vocal score it’s shown in larger notes than the high line that one normally hears, suggesting that this is the preferable option. I wondered if Gilchrist had made this choice for safety’s sake but I gather he did the same thing at the aforementioned
Cheltenham performance so it’s clearly a deliberate choice. I mention it chiefly because it typified the attention to detail in his performance. He may have been vocally out of sorts but he was alive to all the nuances in the part. I look forward to hearing him in the role again soon when he’s on better form.

I’ve alluded to the Angel already. Happily, there need be no reservations about Sarah Connolly’s performance. She was on top form and sang in a way that confirmed her reputation as one of
Britain’s foremost mezzos. From the very start there was dignity and sincerity in her voice and the tone was consistently rich and full. Best of all the voice was produced easily and freely throughout its compass. I noted with particular pleasure the rapt half-voice at the third “alleluia” in her first solo and the glowing tone with which she invested “A presage falls upon thee.”  Here, as elsewhere, she sang a wonderful, even line. Later on “There was a mortal, who is now above” was a model of eloquence. To cap her performance she sang the Farewell with great serenity. This is the second time I’ve heard her sing this role and in my view it’s becoming an ever more urgent priority for some record company to capture this very fine interpretation while Miss Connolly is so evidently at her peak.

Roderick Williams sang both bass solos with the distinction that one has come to expect almost as a matter of course from this fine singer. The opening bars of ‘Proficiscere’ (between cues 68 and 70) perhaps lacked the last measure of grandeur but that, I think, was down to the conductor’s pacing rather than the singer. The rest of that solo was excellent. In his second solo, as the Angel of the Agony, there was ample power and presence but also I admired the attention that Williams paid to the quieter dynamics. I didn’t feel he was always given quite the space for phrasing that he deserved but his was still a notable performance of both solos.

I’ve alluded to issues of pacing and space a couple of times already. I’m sorry to say that my major disappointment in this performance lay with the conducting of Andrew Nethsingha. Perhaps he has re-thought his interpretation since the performance he led in April 2006. If so, I wish he hadn’t. Then I thought his pacing well nigh ideal but now too many of his tempi were uncomfortably fast. Things started well enough with an account of the Prelude to Part One that was sensibly paced and dramatic but then between cues 27 and 28 – “The like of whom to scare me” – the pace seemed uncomfortably hasty. At the time I wondered if this was to accommodate his soloist’s conception of the role but in the light of his treatment of several subsequent passages I suspect not. “Be Merciful” was too brisk, something I noted in 2006, and as a result what should be an implacable tread in the orchestral bass went for nothing. In ‘Sanctus Fortis’ the speeds were urgent and dramatic. The problem in this crucial and vocally demanding section was that James Gilchrist was given insufficient time and space to make any interpretative points; the music whirled by and while on one level a certain feverish ambience is not inappropriate, I felt that most of the subtlety was lost. The end of Part One was disappointingly perfunctory. Mr. Nethsingha didn’t really seem to observe the più lento at cue 78 so the music didn’t gently expand in these closing bars as Elgar surely intended, and the last chord seemed to be cut off almost abruptly, rather than dying away.

I unreservedly applaud the decision to have only a pause – and no applause – between the two parts of the work – all performances of Gerontius should be done this way. Unfortunately, on this occasion the pause was just a little too prolonged and, as it went on, we in the audience began to chatter a bit more than we should have done, so dissipating some of the atmosphere.

Nethsingha began Part Two with a well shaped and nicely paced account of the luminous Prelude, obtaining some refined playing from the Philharmonia’s string section. In general he handled the Dialogue well. The Demon’s Chorus was exciting, with some suitably brazen singing from the choir. However, at times it sounded a bit frenetic and the ensemble between choir and orchestra was certainly shaky at the start of the fugal episode, “Dispossessed”.

I wasn’t entirely happy either with the passage where the Angelicals commence the long build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’. At cue 60, where this section begins, the music seemed too fast; I’m sure it was well above the metronome marking. In the pages that followed the ladies of the chorus conveyed a nice sense of innocence with their fresh singing. However, the tempo was often a notch too quick for comfort and so the music almost sounded jaunty at times. ‘Praise to the Holiest’ itself had some impressive moments, the great outburst at the start being glorious. The choir articulated the fast music that follows very well but in the double chorus section from cue 89 I sensed the music just starting to run away a bit, especially between cues 94 and 95. However, it all held together and was very exciting.

Later on there were a few more occasions when I felt the chosen speed was too hasty and one more instance must be mentioned. The dramatic and powerful orchestral build up to “Take me way” at cue 118 is marked Moderato e solenne. Quite frankly, the pace adopted on this occasion was ludicrously fast. The music was robbed of all the necessary sense of awe and foreboding. I’ve never heard it treated in this way and I never want to do so again. Happily, after this Mr. Nethsingha treated the Angel’s Farewell in a satisfyingly conventional way and brought the great work to a noble conclusion.

I’m truly sorry to have to write so negatively of the conducting but several aspects of Mr Nethsingha’s handling of the score brought me up with a jolt and this was all the more surprising given that I’d heard him give such a satisfying and eloquent reading of the work less than eighteen months ago. His was, by some distance, the swiftest performance of the work I can ever recall hearing. By my watch Part One took thirty-one minutes and Part Two lasted for fifty minutes. Just for comparison I checked some recent recordings in my collection, pretty much at random. Sir Colin Davis’ recording, taken from concert performances, takes 36:39 for Part One and 55:50 for Part Two. Sakari Oramo’s studio recording ( Review ), which also features some fleet pacing, lasts for 33:15 and 52:56 respectively. Whilst the clock isn’t always the most reliable guide I think these comparative timings are instructive. I’d suggest that they underline that Mr Nethsingha’s performance, while dramatic, missed a lot of the vital reflective nature of the work.

The choir had been on superb form the previous night in Hymnus Paradisi (Review.) I didn’t think they quite attained the same heights on this occasion. In fact I wondered if, in the heat of the moment, Mr Nethsingha took some passages faster than in rehearsal and thereby disconcerted them. The choral singing was excellent overall,  it’s just that the same singers had set the bar incredibly high just twenty-four hours before.

So this was an uneven experience. I had hoped for great things but this is not a Gerontius that will live in my memory and, though it was warmly received by the audience, I don’t think it will go down in the annals of the Three Choirs as one of the best performances that this masterpiece has received at Festivals over the years.


John Quinn   


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