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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (23) - Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Alice Coote (sop), Paul Groves (tenor), Iain Paterson (bass), National Youth Choir of Scotland, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Hallé Orchestra. Conductor: Mark Elder. Usher Hall, 5.9.2009 (SRT)

2009’s Edinburgh International Festival went out on a high with this fantastic closing concert: it was a showcase in bringing the best in the world to Edinburgh and letting them showcase what they are so good at. Elder’s performances of
Gerontius, together with his recording, have confirmed him as the greatest Elgar conductor we have today, all the more so since the sudden death of Richard Hickox. Without doubt he was the greatest thing about this storming performance because he is utterly tuned in to both the work’s drama and its spirituality. The lovingly intense manner with which he shaped the first part’s introduction, for example, immediately elevated his reading to a higher level than many others that I have heard: hushed and tentative at the opening, leading to the great climax before the tenor’s entry, paced with certainty but shimmering with spine-tingling intensity. The same sense of awe accompanied the beautiful string introduction to the second part, but this time suffused with airy brightness and tentative optimism, together with the sheer sense of wonder with which the soul surveys his new surroundings. He piloted the ship through the rapids of the demons’ chorus with remarkable skill, bringing out the black humour together with the horror, and the sheer intensity of Praise to the Holiest was unforgettable: just when you thought that everyone was giving their all Elder got them to give even more. For his contribution alone this would have been one of the great Edinburgh Festival concerts.

But of course he wasn’t alone: he was accompanied by the band he has led so well for the last nine years. I can’t imagine a better orchestra for Elgar than the Hallé: they show virtuosity and incredible skill, but also an innate understanding of the composer’s Englishness, showcased by the remarkable colour that the woodwinds can bring to even a fragment of melody. The brass especially are tremendous in the big climaxes, glowing with burnished brilliance without ever being showy.

The solo team was quite magnificent. Paul Groves is younger and more vigorous than most of us would imagine for Gerontius, but he brought energy and passion to the role, really bringing it alive, and his articulation of the text was outstanding. His
Sanctus Fortis sounded almost like Verdi, while his preparation for purgatory carried a Wagnerian weight of resignation. Alice Coote’s angel was subtle and understated and very beautiful, therefore the effect was all the more powerful as she opened out into the sequence where they approach the judgement seat. She was gentle and ineffably tender and not afraid to shade her voice down to a genuine pianissimo when required. Iain Paterson’s bass roles had a palpable sit-up-and-take-notice quality, partly of course because Elgar uses him so sparingly, but also because of the vigour and energy that he brings to his characters: his injunction at the end of Part 1 was no faint farewell but the launch of an epic journey and I was sorry we couldn’t hear more of him.

The Edinburgh Festival Chorus have had a vintage year: I have never heard them sound better than this, testament to the fantastic work that Christopher Bell has done with them. There was never a hint of insecurity through the perils of the demons’ chorus sung with passion and maniacal humour, and they fairly raised the roof for the climax of
Praise to the Holiest. Their supplications in part one were every bit as convincing, however, capturing the power and the pleading of this work with equal success, and it was great to have the support of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

As I left the hall I overheard one gentleman saying that he had been coming to the Edinburgh Festival for thirty years but he deemed this one of the very best concerts. Quite right: a showcase of everything a festival should do and be and a fantastic way to end the season.

Simon Thompson


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