The Dream of Gerontius, Well and Eloquently Served in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38:  Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham 12.4.2012 (JQ)

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

The Dream of Gerontius is inextricably linked with Birmingham. It was in that city’s Town Hall that the near-disastrous première took place in 1901 and I should imagine that since what was then the City of Birmingham Orchestra was founded in 1920 – with Elgar himself conducting its first Symphony Concert – many of its principal conductors have given the work. Over the years Birmingham has made handsome amends for the shortcomings of that first performance. In the last thirty years the orchestra has recorded the work twice with successive Music Directors. Sir Simon Rattle made a fine recording in 1986 and twenty years later his successor, Sakari Oramo led a recording which, though it had much to commend it, was let down by a few controversial speeds and a less than fully satisfactory tenor soloist (review). For this concert Oramo’s successor, Andris Nelsons, was to have conducted the work and I was looking forward to hearing him direct it but unfortunately his daughter is ill and he was compelled to withdraw. Another victim of illness was Toby Spence, the originally advertised tenor. Into their places stepped, respectively, the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Edward Gardner and the tenor, Robert Murray.

The Prelude to Part I of Gerontius can fulfil two requirements. Firstly, it lays out all the principal themes of the work in a fine piece of synthesis. Secondly, however, it can give a useful indication of the interpretative stance of the conductor: does he understand the work and is he in sympathy with it? Edward Gardner’s excellent, idiomatic shaping of the Prelude generated confidence in what was to follow and, as the evening progressed it was clear that this confidence was not misplaced. The Prelude also demonstrated that the CBSO was in fine fettle; the sonority throughout the orchestra was very satisfying.

I’ve heard Robert Murray twice recently in two very different assignments. He was the excellent soloist in Paul McCreesh’s magnificent recording of the Grande Messe des Morts by Berlioz (review) and then, just a few weeks ago, I caught him in one of the first performances of a new work for tenor and orchestra by Cecilia McDowall (review). He impressed me on both occasions but Gerontius is a test in a different league. It was soon apparent that Murray was up to the job.  At the very start (‘Jesu, Maria, I am near to death’) he was successful in achieving the difficult balance between human vulnerability and the requisite vocal strength. Later there was a fine ring and evident feeling in the taxing ‘Sanctus fortis’ – “In Thine own agony” was properly anguished and well sung, with a ringing top B flat. At the other end of the vocal scale, as it were, Murray brought great intensity to the hushed ‘Novissima hora est’, where the line was floated very well. Here he and Gardner generated a potent atmosphere, not least through the intelligent use of silence.

A different, often more intimate approach is called for in Part II and Murray was equally successful here. He brought a pleasing lightness of tone and sense of repose to ‘How still it is’ and the extended dialogue with The Angel was done with fine sensitivity. Much later in Gerontius’ journey towards Judgement ‘I go before my judge’ – rightly singled out as a key moment by Stephen Johnson in his perceptive programme note – was an awestruck moment, superbly realised by Murray and Gardner. Murray was excellent in his last solo, ‘Take me away’. The opening phrase, taken thrillingly in one breath despite the broad tempo, was a great cry – as it should be – yet very well controlled. Murray gave a splendid, eloquent reading of what is surely an aria in all but name, crowning an impressive portrayal. In this final solo and throughout the evening I appreciated his clarity of voice and excellent diction. I wonder if he is relatively new to singing the role – his copy appeared to be a fairly new one.. I’m sure his interpretation, already very persuasive and well thought-out, will expand and deepen further over the coming years and I hope to hear him as Gerontius again before long.

As I’ve said on previous occasions, I regard Sarah Connolly as the finest exponent of The Angel currently before the public. She ranks with the most select among interpreters of the role – Dame Janet Baker, Alfreda Hodgson, Helen Watts (I’m too young to have heard Ferrier) – and the chance to hear her essay the part again was a powerful attraction when this concert was announced. I wondered if perhaps she was suffering slightly with a tickly throat for I noticed a couple of very discreet coughs and sips of water between her solos but if this was the case it didn’t seem to affect her singing, which was as satisfying as I’d hoped – and expected – it would be. Of course, it’s not just vocal quality that makes Miss Connolly’s interpretation so successful. She seems to identify with the spirit of the music so well and she penetrates well below the surface of the music, bringing great intelligence as well as tremendous vocal technique to bear on Elgar’s music.

Thus, right from the very start she radiated calm assurance, deploying rich, full tone – ‘A presage falls upon thee’ was eloquent yet relaxed and comforting, and the passage beginning ‘Yes, for one moment’ showed her gift for communicating, as did ‘There was a mortal’. As much as anything I admired the sheer dignity Miss Connolly brought to her interpretation. I’ve commented already on Robert Murray’s contribution to the dialogue with The Angel. Suffice to say that Sarah Connolly’s participation in these passages was on an elevated level and deeply satisfying to hear. The concluding ‘Softly and gently’ fell like balm on the ears. Edward Gardner adopted a fairly expansive tempo and Miss Connolly’s singing was tender, expressive and warm; the breadth of Gardner’s tempo – though by no means excessive – seemed to encourage her to give of her very best in a heartfelt and expertly controlled piece of singing. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s a matter of urgency that this wonderful interpretation should be captured on a recording while Sarah Connolly is at the height of her powers.

Pity the poor bass soloist who has to sit on the platform for such long stretches and then has only two relatively brief solos to sing. To make matters worse, in some respects the solos call for different types of singers and not all bass soloists are equally successful in both. James Rutherford was not among this number: both his contributions were excellent. As the Priest at the end of Part I he displayed great authority and used his sonorous voice to fine effect. In Part II, as the Angel of the Agony, he was a commanding presence at the start and end of his solo However, this is essentially a supplicatory part and in the middle section Rutherford brought out the lyrical side really well, not least at that wonderful phrase ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour and bid them come to Thee’, which was moving to hear.

The soloists excelled and so did the CBSO Chorus, prepared on this occasion, I believe, by Julian Wilkins, their Associate Conductor. Throughout the performance the singing was incisive and well-articulated. There was admirable strength to the singing at ‘Rescue him’ and the choral contribution to ‘Proficiscere’ was very impressive. Shrewdly guided by Gardner, the multi-layered build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was expertly sung; as the Angelicals the ladies of the chorus delivered Elgar’s light, airy textures very well. When it came, the great outburst at the start of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was overwhelming and the whole of the ensuing chorus was delivered splendidly, with evident care for the words and their meaning. Earlier in Part II the choir brought powerful singing to the Demons’ Chorus. It’s not my favourite part of the work but when it’s done with assurance, energy and bite, as was the case here, then it works.

Knitting all this and the splendid orchestra together was Edward Gardner. I didn’t hear until after the performance some pre-concert comments that he’d made on Radio 3. I had wondered if, having been born in Gloucester and grown up there, he might have sung the work as a chorister. Garnder confirmed that this was so but, more than that, he revealed that he had been taught the work by John Sanders, at that time the long-serving Organist of Gloucester Cathedral. Sanders had played the organ for performances directed by his predecessor, Herbert Sumsion and Sumsion in turn had played for performances conducted by Elgar himself. So there’s a direct lineage. As Gardner said, he felt he was tapping into a “canon of great musicians.”  The other interesting observation was that, in approaching Gerontius, Gardner felt a direct linkage with his work as an operatic conductor and especially with Wagner. His interpretation certainly brought out the dramatic thrust of the work.

Just once or twice I thought he pressed ahead a little too enthusiastically but these were very brief instances and I was happy to take them as part and parcel of his committed, carefully considered and dramatic approach to the work. He shaped the music convincingly and it was evident that he took great care in working with his soloists. Also, though I could only see him from the back, of course, it seemed to me that he conducted the choir with particular attention – in their very first contribution, ‘Kyrie eleison’ leading to ‘Holy Mary, pray for me’, he eschewed the baton and sculpted every phrase with them. He controlled the long build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ superbly, which meant that the impact of the chorus, when it arrived, was all the greater. He invested the Demons’ Chorus with tremendous drive and vigour and I appreciated the refined playing he drew from the CBSO strings in the brief, ethereal prelude to Part II. I thought his was a most convincing interpretation. It was evident from the reception accorded him by audience and performers that Gardner has become a very popular figure in Birmingham and on this evidence one can see why.

Two points of presentation pleased me. There was no interval between Parts I and II. Instead we had a pause of about three minutes during which the orchestra re-tuned and Sarah Connolly made her entrance. This is done all too infrequently in my experience but it helps greatly in maintaining the tension. It was just a pity – though understandable – that the audience broke into applause at Miss Connolly’s arrival. But, commendably, we all restrained ourselves at the end of the performance. Even without the need for the conductor to keep his arms raised there was a long silence (43 seconds, and it seemed longer) after the last chord had died away. No one dared break the spell. That was just as it should have been and, in many ways, the silence spoke even more eloquently of the audience’s appreciation than did the prolonged ovation that followed. Elgar’s choral masterpiece had been well and eloquently served.

The concert was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3. It’s available for listening here for the next week. I shall certainly be listening again.

John Quinn