Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is now firmly established in the English tradition of religious choral music. Yet Elgar was himself wary of labelling it an oratorio in the tradition of Handel or Mendelssohn; indeed, the work sits somewhat uncomfortably amidst such a backdrop. On the one hand, there is the unusual nature of its subject matter itself—though the spiritual undertones and poignant music are starkly dramatic, the narrative focus is interiorised and abstract rather than physical. All drama and beauty, all despair and fury, must correspond not with any physical altercation, but rather the passage of a man’s soul from life to death and his ultimate journey before God. To be sure, it is a theme rich with meaning and gravity; nevertheless, it is surely not a facile one to realise dramatically in music. More to the point, the musical dramatisation Elgar evokes is grounded in the tradition of Wagnerian Leitmotif, calling to mind the German master’s unbroken, evolving melodies of rich sonority and vibrant tonal colouring. Despite an inauspicious beginning in England upon its premiere in Birmingham in 1900, Richard Strauss spoke of Elgar after the work’s 1901 premiere in Germany as ‘the first English progressive.’
Nevertheless, perhaps on a more basic level than any of the above, Gerontius is separated by the simple fact that the English choral tradition epitomised by Handel was thoroughly Protestant. Gerontius, conversely, is not; it is taken from a poem written by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had himself converted to Catholicism. Though the difference may strike contemporary—especially contemporary secular—audiences as nominal, to an audience more than a century ago, it was not. Invocation of the intercession of Mary on behalf of human souls before their final judgment, the necessity of an intermediary period in Purgatory before a person’s soul may be appropriately cleansed for heaven, reference to Catholic Mass—all declared the work’s distinction from the English tradition in which it was somewhat uncomfortably placed. Factor in the aforementioned allusiveness to the idiom of Wagner—still indicative of a difficult sort of modernism to many mainstream circles—and Elgar’s great work established itself at once as something both challenging and unique. Its ill-fated opening performance led Elgar to declare ‘I always said God was against art…I allowed my heart to open once—it is now shut against every religious feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever’, yet for all the talent and grandeur in its writing, Gerontius soon became one of the mainstays of the twentieth-century English canon.
And then there is the music. At turns staggeringly monumental and sublime, at others quietly shimmering, introverted and serene, it succeeds astonishingly well in painting the redemptive journey of a flawed but virtuous human spirit. Though this performance at the Barbican as well as a prior one in Birmingham were to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons, Mr. Nelsons withdrew and was replaced by Edward Gardner. Mr. Gardner is the Principal Guest Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and his close affinity with the orchestra was patent from the opening bars of the work. The performance seemed to suffer not a whit from the last minute change of direction; under Mr. Gardner’s hand, the orchestra played with immense sensitivity to the broader architecture of the piece as much as the emotiveness of more intimate passages. The Prelude to Gerontius attains a particular pre-eminence in the piece, introducing many of the key themes which are to be developed in the duration. Mr. Gardner’s triumph was in evoking such superb balance, searing strings conjuring fire and then fading to quiet radiance, the faint rustling of the woodwinds drawn out expansively with the texture of the score. Though the reading never lost sight of overall dramatic impetus, Mr. Gardner maintained an ever-adaptable tempo, granting dynamism to Gerontius’s majesty yet simultaneously prolonging every hint of the ethereal beauty contained within Elgar’s music. The Prelude was riddled with evocation of Wagner’s Parsifal, great swaths covered in a glittering translucence of dappled beauty voiced through the gently lilting strings and soft murmurs of the winds. The orchestra bore this out immaculately, layers of silken spirituality laid out against the sweeping force of Gerontius’s journey from life to that which lies beyond.
Gerontius, Elgar’s everyman at the end of his mortal life who finds his spirit on a path toward God, was sung by tenor Robert Murray. Mr. Murray was replacing an indisposed Toby Spence, and he did so superbly; his singing, natural and limned with a lightly golden tone, brought an unusual elegance to the role. His opening cry of ‘Jesu, Maria—I am near to death’ was beautifully voiced, and he succeeded in conveying a man weary of living and yet inherently tied to the richness of life. His ‘Sanctus fortis’ carried on this poignant ambivalence and he navigated its tessitura with remarkable ease. The beauty with which he sang sometimes came at a price—a darker, heavier tenor can be capable of investing more gravity into the role, achieving better tonal shading and emotional potency. Yet Mr. Murray’s ‘Take me away’ was heartfelt and moving, and there is little doubt that his interpretation stands only to grow in future performances.
Though the tenor and conductor necessitated last minute replacements, one could only feel grateful the same was not true for the role of the Angel, sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Looking fittingly lovely in white, Ms. Connolly brought one of the chief pleasures of this Gerontius. Her singing was filled with tenderness and radiance, her interpretation well-developed and emotive; her opening passage in the second part, ‘My work is done’, was suffused with all the grace and purity of tone for which one could hope. Yet equally as impressive as the quality of her timbre was her sensitivity to the text. Every word was enunciated clearly with continued regard for overall dramatic feeling. Her upper register was bright and burnished, a touch of controlled vibrato lending richness. Hearing the tender beauty she brought to her cry of ‘Alleluja’, or her softly delivered valedictory passage ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul’, it was difficult to imagine a singer better suited to the part.
James Rutherford assumed the smaller dual role of the Priest and Angel of the Agony—roles which, alas, felt all too minor for so good a performer. Mr. Rutherford’s entrance with ‘Proficiscere, anima christiana, de hoc mundo!’ in the first part was stirring, his bass-baritone markedly rich and sonorous; his supplication to Jesus in the second part was even more moving in effect, his cries of ‘Jesu! Spare these souls which are so dear to Thee’ riddled with anguish.
Yet it remained the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Gardner that held the evening together. Though allowing his orchestra room to open up overwhelmingly during more dramatic passages—the chorus of Demons, the Soul’s approach of God—Mr. Gardner brought deft support to his singers, careful never to overshadow them. Just as impressive was his utilisation of stillness; in the ‘Sanctus fortis’, when Gerontius expresses ‘I fain would sleep’, the orchestra was brought to a complete stop, a moment of silence redounding before Mr. Murray continued. Silence may certainly be as fecund as sonority in a work like Gerontius, and the balance between the two was one of the performance’s most impressive features.
The orchestra was augmented with a wonderful contribution by the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. The male voices were in particularly good form as the demon chorus, singing with pronounced power as brass surged and strings soared in a tumult under Mr. Gardner’s direction. The female singers shone in the final angelic chorus, their light, effulgent tone offering sweet balsam to the end of Gerontius’s journey. And, indeed, to the audience—as the chorus’s serene singing joined with that of Ms. Connolly and Mr. Murray, a fitting end was offered to an altogether excellent evening of music.
John E.De Wald