An Excellent, Moving Gerontius at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Elgar:  Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass-baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Partington (conductor). Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 3.8.2013 (JQ)

Wagner: Parsifal, Act 1 Prelude
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38

Adrian Partington has been uncommonly generous in ceding the podium to guest conductors during this Festival, despite being its director. He conducted only three of the big set-piece evening cathedral concerts. Unfortunately, other commitments prevented me from attending his two previous concerts, though I’ve heard from a number of sources that his accounts of The Planets and Belshazzar’s Feast were extremely fine. In both of those concerts he included a work by Elgar – the Cello Concerto and Falstaff respectively – and for this final choral/orchestral concert of the festival Elgar’s music took centre stage.

However, there was other music in addition to The Dream of Gerontius. Nowadays it’s usual for this to be the only work in a concert programme but tonight Mr Partington prefaced Elgar’s masterpiece with the Act I prelude from Parsifal. The choice was as apposite as it was perceptive. Wagner’s influence can be felt in Gerontius and the spiritually elevated nature of this prelude complemented Elgar’s music to perfection and acted as a fitting preface to Gerontius. It’s not an easy piece to bring off, not least because Wagner uses relatively little thematic material in constructing this prelude. Tonight’s performance was dignified and spacious. Partington showed an impressive command of line and obtained some excellent, refined playing from the Philharmonia.

Before we’d heard a note of Gerontius Adrian Partington had scored high marks from me for his decision to perform the work without any interval – there was a short pause after Part I during which the mezzo-soprano soloist made her entrance, mercifully without any applause. This is the way the work should be presented as it maintains the concentration and atmosphere but all too rarely does it happen.

The expert shaping and musical flow in this account of the Gerontius prelude came as no surprise after Mr Partington had presented the Wagner so sensitively. His conducting of the prelude proved to be typical of his approach to the whole work; he clearly understands how the music should ‘go’. Quite often, when one hears a work such as this there are small points, often relating to tempo, which one wishes a conductor had done in a different way, even though one admires the way in which the spirit of the music was conveyed. I can honestly say that this was not the case here. I could not fault Partington’s pacing of the score, nor his shaping of it, and the spirit of the music was conveyed in abundance. As the performance unfolded I scribbled in my notes several times the word ‘urgent’ or something similar. Urgency is not, of course, necessarily the same as fast and even on occasions when his pacing was moderate Mr Partington successfully conveyed the dramatic intensity in the music. One or two details particularly caught my attention. The second half of the ‘Praise to the Holiest’ chorus accelerates over time. I’ve heard a number of performances in which the conductor has allowed the music to run away so that it becomes gabbled. That didn’t happen here. Mr Partington well understands the resonant acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral and kept the pace tightly disciplined yet the excitement and fervour still built just as Elgar intended. Another telling moment came at cue 120, the great crash from the orchestra as Gerontius has the blinding vision of God before he exclaims ‘Take me away’. The Philharmonia delivered this thrillingly but the real coup was that Partington judged the delay before the chord to perfection so that the effect was intense and sent a shiver down the spine. These were details, as I say; overall, this was a masterly interpretation of Gerontius from a conductor who clearly knows the work inside out and who knows exactly how to put it across.

The chorus and orchestra responded magnificently to their conductor. The playing of the Philharmonia was incisive and powerful yet the orchestra also exhibited great sensitivity in the more intimate passages of music, especially in long stretches of Part II. I thought they were better at observing quiet dynamics than had been the case a couple of nights earlier in Hiawatha (review), as were the choir. At the end of a taxing week one might have forgiven the Festival Chorus if they had sounded tired, their vocal edge blunted. Far from it; if anything, their singing was even more committed than the excellent work I’d heard from them earlier in the week. ‘Be merciful’ was very impressive, words and music delivered with appropriate urgency – that word again – and they were tremendous in the closing chorus of Part I. Here, as elsewhere, the semi-chorus did a fine job. At the start of the Demons’ Chorus I thought that perhaps their singing could have been a bit more abrasive but that aspect improved from ‘To psalm-droners’ onwards. The long build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’, expertly shaped by the conductor, was done very well indeed. The ladies of the chorus made a light, fresh sound as the Angelicals. When the great moment arrived, ‘Praise to the Holiest’ itself was thrilling; one had the sense of great doors being flung open and golden light flooding in. The body of that chorus, which can fall flat if not well handled, was done very well indeed; there was lots of light and shade in the singing. All in all the Festival Chorus made a very fine job of Elgar’s great work.

The soloists also did well. I had hoped to hear Toby Spence as Gerontius in Birmingham last year but his health problems around that time, which are a matter of public record, compelled him to withdraw (review). Happily, Spence has now overcome his illness and with health and voice restored he took the title role in this performance. He has a youthful appearance – almost Hamlet-like – and at this stage in his career it’s not so easy for him to suggest in Part I an elderly man on his death bed as compared with what a more seasoned singer such as Richard Lewis or John Mitchinson could do; that will develop with time, I’m sure. However, vocally he was very convincing in Part I, offering a good deal of intense singing: would it be an impertinence to wonder if his recent illness has given him a deeper perspective on this music? In ‘Sanctus fortis’ his singing was urgent and ringing and I loved the subtle, beseeching way he delivered ‘Sanctus fortis’ when the music returns, marked lento and piangendo at cue 53. I have heard some other singers float the line at ‘Novissima hora est’ more delicately but the phrases that followed were beautiful. If I have a criticism of his performance it would be that in Part II he did not seem to deploy a sufficiently wide range of dynamics and colour. For example, at the words ’Thou speakest darkly, Angel, and an awe falls on me’ he didn’t convey much of a sense of awe to me. However, this will surely come as he deepens his interpretation of the role, which is already far from inconsiderable. The last impression he made on us was an extremely positive one in an expressive, ardent account of the ‘Take me away’ solo.

Matthew Rose was a commanding presence as the Priest in Part I. He has a big voice and he used it most effectively. However, I liked him even more as the Angel of the Agony. He made this music a powerful supplication, singing with fine feeling and excellent control. He was most expressive in this solo and particularly eloquent in the wonderful passage that begins at ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour’.

And what of The Angel? I must admit I was thoughtful when I saw that the role was to be sung by the Estonian mezzo, Kai Rüütel. I am emphatically not one of those people who believe that only English artists can perform English music. However, I’ve heard a few non-English singers fare badly in Gerontius, either because their English is not quite right, as was the case with Kim Borg in Barbirolli’s recording, or because they don’t quite ‘get’ the music – Anne-Sophie von Otter was far too cool in Sir Colin Davis’s recording of the work, for example. I need not have worried about Miss Rüütel: in this very fine performance of the work as a whole her contribution was simply outstanding. Her English was flawless; her voice sounded absolutely gorgeous; she sang with excellent feeling but with a complete absence of histrionics – she simply stood and delivered; and although she carried a score she barely glanced at it, singing directly to her audience with whom she maintained a compelling eye-contact. Throughout her performance she exhibited a marvellous sense of line and her voice was produced not only evenly throughout its compass but also seemingly without effort. Time and again there was a lovely warmth to her singing as, for example, at ‘You cannot now cherish a wish’ or at ‘A presage falls upon thee’. She crowned her performance with an account of the Farewell that was touching, poised and eloquent. I hope to hear her again in this role to which, I think, she is ideally suited.

This was a truly splendid performance of Gerontius. A fellow member of the audience, who sang in the chorus at fifty consecutive Three Choirs Festivals, commented to me afterwards that it was one of the best performances of the work that he had listened to or performed in. Who am I to disagree with such an experienced judge?

And so the Three Choirs Festival 2013 comes to an end: the tents are folded and the caravan moves on to Worcester in 2014. The events I’ve attended in Gloucester have been excellent and from what I’ve heard of concerts that I missed the general standard has been very high. Next year Peter Nardone will direct his first Festival and he’s announced a very strong programme. Major events include Britten’s War Requiem, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Mahler’s Second Symphony – and that’s just the first three evening concerts! Later in the week there will be Bach’s B minor Mass, Elgar’s The Spirit of England, the première of A Foreign Field, the festival commission from Torsten Rasch, and Elgar’s The Apostles. More details can be found here. Bring it on!


John Quinn