Wigglesworth’s Dynamic Account of The Dream of Gerontius

Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Peter Hoare (tenor), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Peter Rose (bass), Members of Bristol Choral Society, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 7.11.2014 (PCG)

As is well known, the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham was an almost unmitigated disaster, and it was not until the work was rehabilitated following performances in Germany that it succeeded in slowly establishing itself in the English choral repertoire. Yet the reason is not far to seek, and was fully explored by Stephen Johnson in his excellent programme notes. Musically the work radically refashioned the Victorian oratorio tradition, recasting it in a Wagnerian dramatic mould complete with the use of plentiful leitmotifs. And the text, setting the poem by Cardinal Newman, not only alienated some of the Birmingham performers and audience with its odour of Roman Catholic incense, but called for a theatre of the mind to recreate the earth-shattering scenario of death and judgement which demands much imagination of its listeners. The extreme range of the musical setting also makes huge demands on its performers, as is evidenced by the plentiful alternative vocal lines which Elgar supplies for his solo singers (even including a provision for the tenor solo Sanctus fortis to be sung in a lower key).

There is a momentary glance back to the oratorio tradition in the elaborate fugal writing at the end of Praise to the Holiest, which followed as it is by the dangerously static and hectoring address of the Angel of the Agony and a setting of the bars leading to the protagonist’s vision of God which Elgar had to expand at the urgent entreaty of his friend Jaeger, comes perilously close to creating a dramatic vacuum at the very centre of the work. It which needs very careful handling from the conductor – Elgar managed to convey an entry into Heaven with greater success in The Apostles written a few years later. But in the right hands it can form a unified vision of overwhelming power, and Mark Wigglesworth here adopted a full-blooded dramatic approach rather than the more spiritual contemplation preferred by conductors of an earlier generation such as Sargent and Boult. (There are of course some live recordings made by the composer himself towards the end of his life, but they are too fragmentary in nature to allow us to decide which style of interpretation he favoured.)

This dynamic approach by Wigglesworth, as might be expected given his movement into the operatic field of endeavour over recent years, worked extremely well. The performance was however slightly compromised by the acoustic of St David’s Hall, most troublingly in the contribution of the semi-chorus. Elgar specified a small group of choristers for various passages in the oratorio, and here these were delivered by a row of singers placed in the back row of the chorus. But, as I know from personal experience, there are severe problems with this arrangement in the hall because singers on one side of the stage are simply not able to hear properly the contributions of singers on the other side (as was indeed testified in a concert given by the Sixteen a couple of years ago). This must have caused insuperable difficulties for the individuals concerned, and indeed solo voices tended at times to protrude from the semi-choral body simply because the chorister concerned would not have been able to judge the appropriate volume in the desirable manner (I should emphasise that this was clearly not the fault of any one singer). Similar doubts probably accounted for the lack of sheer force in some of the choral contributions in the first half, where the sizeable body of choristers clearly felt less than ideally comfortable in their delivery of the urgent chorus Rescue him.

The principal soloists, placed at the very front of the stage, came across loud and clear; and the orchestra, who have become accustomed over the years to the idiosyncratic balances of the stage in the hall, produced all the power than one could have desired. Wigglesworth began the prelude very slowly indeed, only gradually gathering momentum and force. Peter Hoare as the protagonist was occasionally almost overwhelmed by their contribution, but by and large he came over well to where I was seated in the stalls; his voice may have lacked some of the sense of Italianate sweetness that one finds in earlier exponents of the role such as Richard Lewis, but he delivered the text with passion and delicacy as well as a real sense of engagement with the words. At the end of the first half Peter Rose as the Priest who sends Gerontius forth on his journey had all the power and authority that one could wish, riding the choral and orchestral climaxes with apparent ease. Unfortunately at that point in the performance illness forced me to leave the hall (although, constrained by broadcast schedules, the oratorio was given without an interval except from a narrative introduction to Part Two), but I did catch the broadcast of the second part on the BBC i-player. And from this it was apparent that Anna Larsson was a model of a Guardian Angel, encompassing the wide reaches of her role without difficulty (as one would expect from a singer whose Wagnerian roles encompass both Kundry and Erda) although her delivery of the text was not as clear as her fellow-soloists’; and that the choral force and blend in the broadcast sound was all that anyone could desire. The audience were properly enthusiastic, although persistent coughers were out in force during the prelude (and later).

I would earnestly recommend those who love this score as much as I do to make every effort to hear this performance on the BBC i-player (it is available there for thirty days).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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