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Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius Op.38: Anna Stephany (mezzo-soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass), Ex Cathedra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jeffrey Skidmore Town Hall, Birmingham, 29.11.2009 (JQ)


Fresh from their performance of The Dream of Gerontius in London a few days previously (see review) Jeffrey Skidmore and his Ex Cathedra choir gave two performances of the work – of which this one was the second – not just in the city but in the very hall where the work was first heard. It was on 3 October 1900 that the notoriously ill-prepared première of Gerontius took place in Birmingham Town Hall so it was very fitting indeed that Skidmore and his choir should perform the work as part of their own fortieth anniversary celebrations and as a contribution to the events marking the 175th anniversary of Town Hall.


The very first performance of the oratorio suffered from a woeful lack of adequate preparation, as is well known, but there was nothing remotely under- prepared about this Ex Cathedra performance. That much was evident even before the performance began for the notes in the excellent programme book detailed how much research had gone into trying to present a performance that would give us a glimpse, in the words of Jeffrey Skidmore, of “the sound world, style and spirit of music at the turn of the twentieth century.” The care with which the performance had been approached was also evident from the layout of the orchestra, and especially of the strings. Like a number of other conductors, Skidmore divided his violins left and right. But he went much further than that. The double basses were positioned, three each side, behind the fiddles and at the outer edges of the orchestra. The violas were right in the middle and the celli were placed on either side of the violas. Thus the violas were in the optimum position, right at the heart of the orchestra, and the high and low strings were spread right across the sound spectrum, so that neither side of the orchestra was unduly weighted to treble or bass. With the horns to the conductor’s left and the harps to his right, it was evident that a considerable amount of thought had been given to exactly what sort of orchestral sound would be presented to the audience.


Behind and above the orchestra was ranged the choir. Let’s not beat about the bush; the choral performance was absolutely superb. Perhaps, just perhaps, the sound of the bass section was a little light but the basses still produced a good, solid foundation for the choir and there was never any threat of heaviness, still less of wooliness in their tone. As a member of the tenors’ union myself I was delighted by the keen, clear sound produced by that section and the sopranos and altos were equally distinguished – the Angelicals section leading up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was quite beautifully done. A small section of the choir doubled as the semi chorus. Their role is absolutely crucial and I can say quite truthfully that I’ve never heard a better semi chorus in a live performance of this work. Throughout the whole performance Ex Cathedra’s singing was alert, expertly balanced, responsive – the attention to dynamics was marvellous – and their diction was excellent. Quiet singing was most impressive but there was also plenty of power at the big moments – the opening of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was thrilling. Perhaps in the Demons’ Chorus they could have been a little more rough-toned but the precision and attack in this section – not my favourite part of the work - was most impressive.

Though they showed no signs at all of tiredness I wonder if the choir, who had already sung the work less than twenty-four hours previously, were pleased that the sensitivity of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was such that they never had to force the tone to be heard. Jeffrey Skidmore had clearly worked out with these expert players exactly the tonal palette he wanted. The use of period instruments meant that the band wasn’t as powerful as would have been the case with a modern instrument ensemble. Thus, for example, the lovely Prelude to Part II had a gentle luminosity that fell most pleasingly on the ear and which distilled a rare atmosphere. Yet, there was no lack of power when it was required. The band snarled and spat appropriately in the Demons’ Chorus and the climax of the Part I Prelude had a burnished majesty. In a further example of attention to detail, three extra trumpets were deployed just for the few bars leading up to ‘Take me away’. I believe Simon Rattle similarly had extra trumpeters for his EMI recording but I’ve never experienced it in a live performance; luxury indeed. Incidentally, as reported in the press recently, there was a pleasing direct link with the composer himself in that one of the OAE’s trombonists was apparently playing an instrument played – not very successfully, we gather - by Elgar himself towards the end of his life.


Before leaving the instrumental side of the performance I must single out for special mention the Town Hall organ, played by William Whitehead. Whenever the organ was involved its presence was telling, most especially on the several occasions when low, sustained deep pedal notes were required. I can’t recall hearing the organ make so important a contribution to a performance of Gerontius


The title role was taken by Adrian Thompson. I’ve not heard him in the part before and I found I had a mixed reaction to his performance. The role of Gerontius is hugely demanding for Elgar requires his tenor to exhibit not only operatic heft but also the sensitivity of a lieder singer. I don’t think that Adrian Thompson was quite up to this range of demands. In the first half I found much of his singing quite forthright, which is fine up to a point, but in his very first solo he didn’t sufficiently suggest the frailty of a dying old man. Gerontius’ second solo begins “Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man.” Here, the soloist should audibly gather himself but because Thompson’s singing in a lot of the first solo had been quite robust we didn’t really experience the contrast – and the high note on the word “man” at the end of this phrase sounded quite strained.


‘Sanctus fortis’ was better, with a strong, affirmative start and in general Thompson was responsive to the softer, more subtle passages in this long, demanding solo. The climactic passage “To the God of earth and heaven” sounded effortful but immediately afterwards the soft, plangent rendition of “Sanctus fortis” was done with good feeling, as was “I can no more”.


I thought Thompson was more comfortable in the music of Part II. Here, much of the music is more intimate and conversational in tone. In particular, with the voice not under so much pressure, he employed a lot less vibrato and as a result I enjoyed his singing much more. The vibrato was more in evidence, perhaps inevitably, at ‘Take me away’ but I thought that, vibrato notwithstanding, Thompson conveyed the spirit of this last solo well. The lengthy dialogue with the Angel at the start of Part II was convincingly done, with no little sensitivity. And I must compliment Mr Thompson on his diction throughout the evening: every word was crystal clear.


As the Angel we had a singer who I can’t recall hearing before. Anna Stephany had been prevented by indisposition from taking part in the London performance a few days earlier but she was happily restored for the Birmingham dates. It seemed to me that she hasn’t got the biggest of voices and sometimes, when she was singing in her lower register, the sound was rather covered by the orchestra. I could imagine that in a larger hall and with an orchestra using modern instruments she might have had to push the voice in the interests of projection but on this occasion she seemed quite comfortable and the sound at the top end of her voice was clear and very pleasing. I thought she made a poised, dignified Angel. Her singing of “A presage falls upon thee” was warm and tender and I loved the colour in her voice at “Yes, for one moment”. Her singing of the famous Farewell was beautifully judged, the tone pure and rounded, the emotion controlled to just the right degree. I look forward to hearing this fine, intelligent singer again.


Roderick Williams was outstanding. Singing from the front of the platform in Part I, he was a commanding, dignified Priest. His singing of this role was noble and elevated. For Part II he moved to the balcony where the choir was seated and delivered the Angel of the Agony’s solo from a position next to the organ bench. This physical separation worked very well both musically and dramatically. Ideally the two roles call for different singers – as was done on the first recording made by Sir Malcolm Sargent - with a heavier, darker tone required for the Angel of the Agony. Having heard Williams in Gerontius before, I know he’s one of a surprisingly small number of singers in my experience – John Shirley-Quirk and Robert Lloyd are also among them – who are equally convincing in both roles. As the Angel of the Agony Williams again sang magnificently and that wonderful phrase, which begins ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour’ was one of the most moving moments of the evening.


Presiding over all this was the founder of Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore. Previously, most of the music I have heard him conduct, in concert or on disc, has been from the baroque period so I was very interested to see how he would put across this big, romantic score. I’ve already remarked on the evident depth of preparation but this was no studied, academic performance. Through complete control of all his forces and evident identification and sympathy with the score Skidmore conveyed the sweep. feeling and drama of the work quite superbly. I’ve taken part in many performances of Gerontius and I’ve lost count of the number of performances I’ve hard in concert or on disc. With such a rich and complex work there are almost inevitably points in the score which one wishes had been done slightly – or more than slightly – differently. I can honestly say that I never felt this about Skidmore’s account of the score. Everything about the pacing, the attention to detail and the vision of the Big Picture seemed just right. He was in complete command of the big moments – for example, the extended build up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, with its layered textures, was superbly shaped and the great chorus itself was thrilling, with the tension never allowed to sag. Skidmore was just as successful in his direction of the many passages that call for chamber-like transparency and his responsiveness to Elgar’s copious markings and his instinctive feel for rubato and for the innumerable subtle changes in pulse was at the heart of the successful realisation of such passages as the dialogue between Gerontius and the Angel. As an interpretation this was one of the most satisfying and faithful accounts of the work I can recall hearing


There was a copious array of microphones in the hall and I do hope that it will be possible in due course for Ex Cathedra to issue the recording of this performance so that it can be enjoyed by a wider audience. Since the near-disaster of the first performance I’m sure that Birmingham Town Hall has been the venue for many fine performances of Gerontius but surely this account must rank among the very best. One can only congratulate Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra on this excellent performance, which was a worthy celebration of their fortieth anniversary and a fitting salute to the hall in which Elgar’s great masterpiece was first heard one hundred and nine years ago.

John Quinn

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