Hallé’s Gerontius was a Remarkable Performance to Stay Long in the Memory

18/03/2017

Elgar: David Butt Philip (tenor), Iain Paterson (bass-baritone), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 12.3.2017. (MC)

Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius

A performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is an event worthy of notice especially from the Hallé with its long tradition of playing the composer’s music. Last September Daniel Barenboim conducted the score with the Staatskapelle Berlin at the 2016 Berlin Music Festival and although reporting from the festival I was unable to attend the Philharmonie performances. The advertised tenor Jonas Kaufmann withdrew from the role of Gerontius and on the day the intended replacement Toby Spence also pulled out requiring a rush for a last-minute replacement. In the role of the Angel the advertised mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was indisposed and a substitute had to be found. No such bewilderment here at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. One sensed all the preparations under Sir Mark Elder had been nothing less than ideal with the chosen soloists, chorus and orchestra clearly well rehearsed and up to speed in their roles and it showed.

Inspired by John Henry Newman’s poem of The Dream of Gerontius (1865) Elgar completed his setting of a sacred cantata in time for the 1900 Birmingham Triennial Festival. It’s the journey of the soul into the unknown through death into purgatory for purification before the promise of everlasting life. After tonight’s stunning performance I doubt anyone in the Bridgewater audience would disagree that Elgar’s score is a masterpiece.

A greatly experienced choral conductor, Sir Mark’s perceptive direction provided an affecting experience that to me felt strongly spiritual. Astutely chosen the strong trio of soloists rose to the occasion. As Gerontius tenor David Butt Philip, a new name to me, was clear and smooth, displaying excellent diction, unruffled with a voice revealing a suitable degree of world weariness. Especially striking was his pleading to be taken to Purgatory ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep There let me be’. Impressive too as the Angel was the engaging performance of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. It was with very different repertoire that I last saw Cooke at Berlin in 2012 with the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin performing American orchestral songs. Revealing her rich, warm timbre in the ‘Angel’s Farewell’ the consoling song of humanity that crowns the work Cooke was assured and secure, conveying a deep piety. One minor grumble I have is her word endings were often indistinct. Of course, Kathleen Ferrier and Dame Janet Baker were famous exponents of the role of the Angel and whilst not elevating Cooke into that esteemed territory the American Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano did all that was asked of her. With his imposing presence bass-baritone Iain Paterson was rock steady in his dual role of the Priest/Angel of Agony. Rich toned and convincingly expressive I especially admired the ‘Judgement’ scene with the Angel of Agony beseeching Jesus to ‘spare these souls which are so dear to Thee’.

Well occupied with the extensive amount of text the combined Hallé choirs were in quite magnificent voice communicating a crucial sense of sacred awe. Judiciously prepared with a disciplined approach and sharp focus the forces smartly brought out the dramatic contrasts displayed so persuasively in the striking ‘Demon’s Chorus’ and most moving of all the section ‘Praise to the Holiest’ sent a shiver down the spine.

Under Sir Mark’s masterly pacing and balance of the instrumental and choral forces the Hallé played with all the warmth and distinction I have now come to expect from this exceptional orchestra. The excellent timpanists must be eating raw meat these days as the muscular timpani thwacks just prior to the Soul’s words ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep’ made many of the audience jump.

A seminal work in English choral repertory The Dream of Gerontius was given a remarkable performance that will stay long in the memory.

Michael Cookson

The performance was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

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