Profoundly Moving Performance of Gerontius in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Toby Spence (tenor), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Alan Opie (baritone), Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus / Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29.5.2015 (SRT)

It took a while for me to get to like The Dream of Gerontius. For a long time I simply didn’t get it – but ever since it clicked I have found it one of the most profoundly moving works in the choral repertoire.  So it proved tonight.  The RSNO paid the work a huge compliment by assembling a superb cast of soloists that gave the work the deluxe treatment.

Gerontius himself is an impossibly difficult role to cast because he has to sound old and faded in the first part but renewed and reinvigorated in the second.  Toby Spence gave the part a fairly uniform sense of energy, almost youthfulness, but his shining, golden tone gave the whole thing a sense of humanity and, above all, beauty, and while he was occasionally stretched at the top, he managed great things at the climactic Take me away.

Sarah Connolly confirmed her place at the very top of the list English Elgarians, her angel full of pathos, beauty and intensely human warmth.  Where these two were approachable, Alan Opie made the Priest and the Angel of the Agony into a pair of archetypes, distant and even a little forbidding, but his declamatory style made them stand out like granite outcrops, and his diction was exceptional.  The RSNO chorus, too, did a very fine job, negotiating the rapids of the Demons’ Chorus with flair and raising the roof at the end of Praise to the Holiest, for all that the ladies made slightly heavy weather of its quieter opening iterations.  They were at their finest in the work’s gentler moments, though, such as the hymn of the souls in Purgatory or, better still, the praying friends at the start of Part One where the sound seemed to emerge from the ether.

This is a work that is close to Peter Oundjian’s heart, and he lavished care on it, controlling the ebb and flow very impressively and negotiating the transitions with great skill.  Again and again, he made me marvel at Elgar’s musical architecture as the great sacred drama unfolded, a drama that needs not a stick of scenery to deepen its impact.  The orchestra followed him every step of the way, from the veiled sounds of the opening, through the high drama of the end of Part One or the appearance before the throne of God, to the poignant beauty of the final bars, which sank into a reverential hush (that was sadly broken by an applauder who was determined to get in first).  Still, this was a great way to end the season, showing what the whole RSNO family do best.

Simon Thompson

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