Mark Elder Leads an Admirable Dream of Gerontius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor), James Rutherford (bass-baritone), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.1.2013 (MB)

The Dream of Gerontius, op.38

This performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius had a great deal to recommend it. However, rather to my surprise, Mark Elder exhibited something of a tendency, especially later on, to sacrifice drama to beauty. Memories of Britten’s incendiary LSO recording continued to linger. The Prelude, like so much else of this account, clearly took after Parsifal. After a slightly bland opening, it blossomed richly, not least thanks to an excellent LPO viola section. (Violas, always at the very heart of the harmony, are far more crucial to the success of a performance than many realise, not least when it comes to Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian repertoire.) Splendidly implacable brass also gave a foretaste of travails to come.

Most of the first part proceeded splendidly thereafter. For instance, the chorus, ‘Be merciful,’ had a well-judged cumulative power, though I felt that there were times during Gerontius’s subsequent solo when Elder drove too hard, bringing the Soul closer to Verdi than to Wagner. Amends were certainly made at the end of this part, however, when a slight tendency to linger proved entirely apt to the text. There were many details throughout to admire, not least excellent playing, again redolent of Parsifal, from the LPO woodwind. Elgar’s contrapuntal mastery told in Elder’s direction of the Demons’ Chorus; here drive was not at all out of place. The emergence of the ‘great tune’ was carefully prepared in the best sense.

Paul Groves proved a fine Gerontius, more at home than he had been in Das Lied von der Erde, a few nights earlier. He offered sincerity, intelligence, and an excellent way with words. Perhaps it was too much to hope for the ringing tones of a classic Heldentenor on top of that; perhaps it was inappropriate even. After all, he had a good few ‘heroic’ moments, individually considered, and a degree of strain might well be argued to fit the text well. Sparing use of the head voice proved moving too. Initially I wondered whether something a little ‘more’, however indefinably so, might have been desirable from Sarah Connolly. However, it soon became apparent that consolation was developmental; the arc of her performance was fully considered and all the more powerful for it. ‘Yes – for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord,’ offered perhaps the most radiant singing of the evening, though I might equally have said that of her final solo, ‘Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul’. It set me thinking, not for the first time, how much Janet Baker’s repertoire seems to suit Connolly; one would never mistake the voices, but the Fachis clearly similar. (I should love to hear her as the Wood Dove in Gurrelieder.) Moreover, Connolly’s duetting with Groves relatively early on in the second part sounded as close to opera as Elgar would venture, The Spanish Lady notwithstanding. James Rutherford was a very late substitute for Brindley Sherratt, and brought off his parts with great aplomb, rich toned and full of presence. After the words, ‘To that glorious Home, where they shall ever gaze on Thee,’ I almost expected to hear a tenor respond, ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’

The London Philharmonic Choir and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge were also on excellent form. At the first entry of the Assistants, they sounded very much as the best of the English choral tradition. Evensong did not sound so very far away, though writ large of course. They managed lightness equally well, clearly encouraged by Elder, for instance in parts of the first ‘Praise to the Holiest’, in which elements of earlier Romanticism, Mendelssohn and perhaps Schumann, came winningly to light. A truly ringing conclusion to its successor, with the words ‘Most sure in all His ways!’ was a tribute to conductor, orchestra, and chorus. It was something of a pity that Elder’s caressing way with what followed made it seem a little too much of an anti-climax, but I should not exaggerate, for there was seraphic beauty to be experienced – ironically – from Clare’s Voices on Earth. As I said, there was a great deal to admire. And if Newman’s text may be difficult for some to take, ultimately it was redeemed by Elgar’s music – and by the performers.

Mark Berry