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Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Ex Cathedra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jeffrey Skidmore Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.11.2009 (BBr)


“This is the best of me,” wrote Elgar at the end of the full score of The Dream of Gerontius. He was right, this certainly, up to this point in his career, was the best of him. But it was also something else; it was probably the best a British composer could do, at that time.

John Stainer’s The Crucifixion (1887), Sullivan’s The Golden Legend (1886) and Stanford’s The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet, op.24 (1886), were all written not long before Gerontius  and soon to come was Stanford’s Songs of the Sea, op.91 (1904). All of them offer decent enough chances for good singing but they don’t really raise the roof like this work. This was the state of British choral music when Gerontius burst on the scene at the Birmingham Festival on 3 October 1900; everything prior was all very worthy but the paucity of real musical invention most popular choral works led to the (now apocryphal)  joke about a conversation between two musicians:

1st Musician: What do you think of Stainer’s Crucifixion
2nd Musician: I think it’s a damned fine idea.

gave  the British choral tradition a throroughly  good shake-up, but   unfortunately for Elgar, the première was under rehearsed and something of  a disaster. Even so, critics recognized a masterpiece  when they heard one and Gerontius  received two further performances in 1901, four in 1902 and twenty in 1903 (including two in New York and one in Chicago). By then its success was assured. I am pretty sure that most music lovers would still consider Gerontius to be Elgar’s choral masterpiece, although some, Sir Adrian Boult included, have rated The Kingdom (1906) more highly. To my mind at least, it’s hard to understand why this should be for although The Kingdom contains the glorious soprano scena The Sun goeth down there is nothing in it to compare with Gerontius’s Praise to the Holiest, Sanctus Fortis and Softly and gently, to name but three of the many highlights.

Tonight’s performance, given in celebration of Ex Cathedra’s 40th birthday, was a real attempt at performing this work as it might have been heard in Elgar’s lifetime, and, more importantly, how it might have sounded at the first performance. The first thing which was noticeable about it was just how good Jeffrey Skidmore is as an orchestral  conductor. Many choral directors, I resist the temptation to name them, seem not to make the transition to orchestral direction particularly well when orchestras are added to their beloved choirs  often with more than mixed results. Not so Skidmore. His conducting was spot on, direct and to the point, giving clear leads where necessary, and with little in the way of  flowery gestures. Everyone responded well to his leadership.

Adrian Thompson made a fine Gerontius. Not too heavy, but with the right amount of darkness and weight to his voice, and the ability to vary his delivery when necessary –when singing Sanctus fortis pianissimo he was superb and it was a lesson in how to sustain the voice whilst maintaining a very quiet line. I don’t think he put a foot wrong, his breathing was perfect, never spoiling a line and his delivery of a line was just about perfection. I would have welcomed a little less vibrato personally, but his use of portamento was delightful and subtle. Roderick Williams is a singer I have admired more and more since I saw him in Opera North’s Peter Grimes two years ago. His voice has grown in stature, is now a very fine instrument and he is in total control of it. I was worried that he was to sing both parts of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony – I am convinced that two different voices are required for these totally different characters – but for the latter role Williams darkened his voice and lost the lightish baritone he used in part one to become quite a dark high bass. This was most impressive and just what was needed at this particular moment in the drama.

Susan Bickley took over at short notice from Anna Stephany, who had fallen ill, and she made a very good substitute. At first she under-sang a little so that  it was difficult to hear, but as she warmed to her performance she really allowed herself to sing with full voice and let the notes ring out.  A fine Angel indeed, and one I would love to hear again.

Skidmore’s chorus, Ex cathedra, was magnificent, whether unaccompanied in part one, in the Kyrie Eleison,  letting the devil loose  in the demons' chorus or expressing high ecstasy in Praise to the Holiest. A wonderful piece of choral singing here. The OAE was excellent, playing music which it doesn’t normally play - much too modern for them! It was simply wonderful to hear an orchestra give some real heft to the music yet still be able to clearly hear the soloists.

This was a fine performance of Gerontius,  revealing in all that we heard:  and how very well we heard it.


Bob Briggs

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