Birmingham’s Superb Dream of Gerontius Repeated in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38: Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 14.4.2012 (CC)

Robert Murray (tenor): Gerontius
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano):The Angel
James Rutherford (baritone ): The Priest/The Angel of the Agony

That this was a remarkable performance is made even more noteworthy when one considers that neither the advertised conductor nor the Gerontius were present. Edward Gardner, stepping in for Andris Nelsons (who was to conduct the work for the first time but who pulled out due to the illness of his young daughter) conducted a mesmerically considered yet also viscerally exciting Gerontius. Part of this considered quality came from broad-ish tempi, but it was more than that (in the same way that simply playing Wagner’s music slowly is woefully insufficient). Of course, Edward Gardner’s position at English National Opera presumably informed the almost operatic scope of his reading. Elgar’s demons were viscerally depicted, in contrast to the almost lullaby-like innocence of the strings at the onset of the work’s second part.  And overarching all of this was a true sense of conception and direction that seemed to do full justice to Elgar’s magnificent canvas.

All was not wholly well at the outset, though. While phrases themselves were given clear and expert direction and shape, they had a propensity to begin raggedly. Gardner’s conducting was the clear result of close study of the score, though – he was also remarkably animated at times. Robert Murray, the other stand-in, this time for Toby Spence, was a more than adequate Gerontius. His command of the entire range ensured a solid technical delivery, but again this was more than that. Murray’s clear empathy for Gerontius’ emotional journey was what acted as the central thread of the evening.

Sarah Connolly rarely disappoints, and this was no exception.  She was a radiant Angel, especially in the ‘Alleluias’. Her interpretation was based on a sweet, transcendent core of lyricism. This Angel could convey urgency, too, in moments that were of symbiotic magic between herself and Gardner.

James Rutherford was a huge-voiced Priest, his declamation impressive and commanding. The CBSO chorus was staggeringly good. Their praises to the Holiest were surely heard outside of the Barbican’s environs; at the other end of the dynamic scale, their quietest moments seemed improbable in their full command of choral balance. The whole, though, was significantly greater than the sum of its parts. This performance verged on greatness.

Colin Clarke