A variable Dream of Gerontius opens the 2011 Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Three Choirs Festival 2011 (1) –  Elgar: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), John Graham-Hall (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Lucas. Worcester Cathedral. 6.8.2011 (JQ)

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

Adrian Lucas steps down as Worcester Cathedral’s Director of Music at Christmas after 15 years in the post, so this is his final Three Choirs Festival and the fifth for which he has been Director. For the opening concert of the 2011 Festival he chose a work that has been synonymous with the Three Choirs for decades, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

Let it be said straightaway that from the very start Mr Lucas demonstrated that he was in complete command of the score and that he had a fine affinity with the music. His beat has exemplary clarity and he had no difficulty in communicating his vision of Elgar’s masterpiece to the performers assembled on the platform. An impressively shaped Prelude to Part I was a harbinger of things to come and found the Philharmonia in fine fettle – the short prelude to Part II, in which the Philharmonia strings played with gentle luminosity, was no less fine. However, despite the quality of the leadership from the podium this Gerontius was, to coin a phrase, something of the proverbial game of two halves. The first part of the oratorio seemed to me to have less overall impact than I had hoped and left me dissatisfied. The principal reason for this, I’m sorry to say, was the performance of John Graham-Hall in the title role.

It may be significant that in his biography in the programme book Mr Graham-Hall lists an impressive number of operatic parts but not a single concert role. In Part I, which he sang entirely from memory, I’m afraid I was underwhelmed by his singing. For much of the time his tone seemed to have a pinched quality and he seemed ill at ease when singing loud notes above the stave. To be fair, Elgar sets his tenor a cruelly demanding task, requiring him to suggest an elderly man on his deathbed while giving him music that is often forthright and dramatic, not least in ‘Sanctus fortis’. Too often, it seemed to me, that Graham-Hall was simply straining too hard for dramatic effect and too often notes, especially at the top of his register, were either not hit right in the centre or else were not sustained truly – ‘at which I come to be’ was one example, as was ‘Some angel, Jesu, such as came to Thee, in Thine own agony’. Several important high notes seemed to spread – or, at least, they had done so by the time they reached me in my seat about three quarters of the way down the nave. Perhaps Graham-Hall was trying too hard to project into the cathedral’s space.

But it must be said that there were some things to admire too. He made a good impact at ‘To the God of earth and heaven’ and the soft ‘Sanctus fortis’ that followed was sensitively done. The drained tone at ‘Novissima hora est’ was excellent and showed a most imaginative use of head voice. This gave me some hope that perhaps the more intimate music of Part II might be more suited to his voice. Happily, this proved to be the case. Oddly, for Part II Mr Graham-Hall used a copy, except for his concluding solo. He seemed far more at ease with the gentler music – and kinder tessitura – in the extended dialogue with The Angel and produced some stylish, sensitive and pleasing singing. I felt that because he wasn’t required to push his tone and could sing lyrically and gently his singing improved out of all recognition and I enjoyed his performance very much more in Part II. Sadly, just as he, Adrian Lucas and the Philharmonia were creating a very special atmosphere at ‘I go before my judge’ someone overturned a pile of glass bottles outside the cathedral and the din made a cruel impact. But the performers never missed a beat. ‘Take me away’, taken in a single breath, was very impressive – here Mr Graham-Hall’s operatic experience was put to good effect. I felt that there were instances again in this last solo where he strained too much for dramatic effect, compromising the vocal production and musical line. However, at Gerontius’ last utterance – ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep, there let me be’ – he achieved the demanding pp morendo effect that Elgar requests very successfully, leaving us with a positive impression of his Gerontius.

In my view Sarah Connolly has been for some years the finest exponent of The Angel before the public. I’ve had the good fortune to hear her sing the role several times in concert – alas, we still wait for someone to record her in this part – but I don’t think I’ve heard her give a finer performance than this one. From her very first phrases she radiated serenity and the deep feeling that she imparted to the music was not only apparent in her voice but also evident from her facial expressions – for those of us seated at a distance from the platform these were relayed on close circuit television and I felt that the camera work was exemplary throughout the evening.

All the key points of the role came across wonderfully. There was, for example, tremendous feeling in her relation of the passage ‘There was a mortal…’ and the expressiveness that Miss Connolly brought to ‘You cannot now cherish a wish..’ was heart warming. This Angel was a truly reassuring presence beside the Soul of Gerontius, awaiting judgement, and when Miss Connolly crowned her interpretation with an outstanding account of the Angel’s Farewell one could really believe the promise contained in Newman’s moving words. This was a performance to cherish. Every time I hear Sarah Connolly assume this role I think it becomes ever more urgent for some record company to capture the interpretation for posterity while she’s in her vocal prime.

The bass soloist has least to do in this work and one challenge for the singer is to assume two very different characters – not all singers meet this challenge. Alan Opie most certainly did meet the challenge and surmounted it. His was a commanding presence in both his solos. He was an authoritative Priest at the end of Part I and his portrayal of the Angel of the Agony in Part II was equally successful. He has a big, full tone, which he produced with seeming ease. Incidentally, I should say that the diction of all three soloists was crystal clear throughout the evening.

The Festival Chorus sang very well. They managed to inject a suitable amount of venom into the Demon’s Chorus and ‘Praise to the Holiest’, expertly prepared for by Adrian Lucas, was a fervent Big Moment. I just felt it was a pity that there weren’t say another thirty singers in the choir; this might have produced even more impact, particularly for those of us seated further back in the nave. However, the platform looked pretty full and it may simply be the case that there would have been insufficient room for a larger choir. Two passages caught my ear particularly. I thought the ladies excelled as the Angelicals in the build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’. The singing had poise and was pure in tone; every strand of Elgar’s multi-parted texture registered with clarity. Later, at ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’, the sopranos are silent so the top line is taken by the altos. The alto part registered more significantly than in most performances that I can recall and I’m sure that the inclusion of male altos – from the various cathedral choirs – imparted an extra cutting edge at this point; the effect was very pleasing.

So, if Part I of this performance was something of a disappointment – and from comments I overheard on the way out I was not alone in this opinion – Part II made up for it and did justice to Elgar’s inspiration. I wish, though, that Mr Lucas had followed the precedent of Andrew Nethsingha at the 2007 Festival (review) and just had a pause of a few minutes between Parts I and II. As it was, the interval, which became protracted because the audience were slow to retake their seats, rather disrupted the flow of the work and its atmosphere

John Quinn