United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (2). Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Nilon (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Geraint Lewis (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 25.7.2015 (JQ)
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
In the year that the Three Choirs Festival celebrates its tercentenary there was an inevitability about the inclusion in the programme of The Dream of Gerontius. Though works such as Messiah and Elijah had a head start on it, Gerontius has become established as a quintessential Three Choirs work and a cornerstone of the festival repertoire. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it would have looked distinctly odd if the work had been absent from this year’s programme. It was first performed at Three Choirs in 1902 – after some modifications to Newman’s text at the insistence of the Anglican clergy. Elgar himself conducted that performance and he went on to conduct , I believe, another eight Three Choirs performances, four of them in Hereford Cathedral; parts of his last Hereford performance, in 1927, were recorded live by HMV. So there was a very real sense of the Elgar lineage as Geraint Bowen launched the first major concert of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival.
I had been looking forward to hearing Peter Auty in the title role, having heard him in a 2013 recording conducted by Edo de Waart (review). Sadly, he was indisposed and his place was taken at short notice by Paul Nilon. It must be an unenviable assignment to step into such a role as a replacement and in Part I it seemed to me that Nilon was not entirely at ease. He looked at his copy a great deal – at the expense of eye contact with the audience – and that’s perhaps understandable. The unease was also reflected in his singing. Much of his singing – in ‘Sanctus fortis’, for example – was open-throated and operatic in style. That’s not inappropriate: the programme note quoted Elgar (in a letter to August Jaeger) saying that he’d given Gerontius music of “good healthy, full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness.” However, I didn’t hear sufficient subtlety in Nilon’s performance – for instance at “in that manhood crucified”. The portrayal seemed one dimensional. That said, I’m sure he was seeking to portray a dying man’s last agony and that side of the music came over well; “In Thine own agony” sounded as if the words had been wrung from him. He didn’t really float “Novissima hora est” but the concluding phrase of that particular solo was sensitively rendered.
But then, to my surprise, we saw a different facet of Paul Nilon in Part II. He seemed physically more relaxed; there was much greater eye contact with the audience, which is surprising since much of the music in the opening stretches of Part II is more rhythmically complex than anything in Part I. Even more welcome was the vocal relaxation. Much of the music in Part II does not require the tenor to make as great a physical effort. With less need to put his voice under pressure in its upper register Nilon produced a more pleasing and nuanced reading. I appreciated his singing very much and found him convincing. For “Take me away” he had the heft for the opening phrase – taken thrillingly in one breath – but then lightened his voice again to excellent effect. Incidentally, though I didn’t have my vocal score with me I’m sure he took the lower alternatives at a couple of points in this solo. Not only was this wise but it’s something that I wish more tenors would do.
Nilon had opposite him Sarah Connolly as The Angel. Though there are several fine exponents of this role currently before the public Miss Connolly is surely its pre-eminent interpreter and she was on fine form for this performance. She has great familiarity with the role, of course, and there are two excellent recordings of Gerontius in the catalogue in which she features: a 2014 studio recording with Sir Andrew Davis (review) and a 2010 live performance under the baton of Sir Colin Davis (review ). Tonight she offered a committed and beautifully nuanced performance. Furthermore, she truly engaged with the audience. Right from the start she sang with generous tone and great conviction. Phrases such as “A presage falls upon thee” were warmly expressive. So too was her tender voicing of “Thou shalt see thy Lord”, the voice subtly produced and the words full of meaning. Perhaps “Praise to His name” was slightly over-cooked but this was a minor consideration when set beside her touching and consoling account of the Farewell. This was a consummate performance.
The bass soloist has relatively little to do and that’s a cause for regret when you have a bass such as Neal Davies. He was a magnificent, noble Priest, projecting sonorous, long phrases out into the cathedral nave. Later, he was imperious yet interceding as The Angel of the Agony.
I should declare something of an interest when it comes to the Festival Chorus for only a few weeks ago I had the good fortune to sing alongside many of these singers as a guest when they sang Gerontius in Germany. Nonetheless, I believe I can be objective about their performance this evening and, indeed, it was good to be able just to sit back and listen. The chorus impressed from their first entry with firm tone and good attention to dynamics. The important semi-chorus parts were confidently projected throughout the evening. They were absolutely splendid in the closing chorus of Part I. I had a sense that the ensemble with orchestra was marginally imprecise early on in the Demons’ Chorus (“Dispossessed, aside thrust…”) but if so this was quickly righted. There was a fine build-up to “Praise to the Holiest”, Elgar’s multi-layered textures well conveyed. These singers surely have Gerontius in their blood and it showed.
Geraint Bowen conducted with skill and dedication. There were a couple of isolated instances where ensemble seemed momentarily shaky but he controlled the performance with great understanding. I liked the way he made the Prelude to Part I flow; it may have been at a tempo slightly above the metronome mark, perhaps, but if so the fluency of the music was ample compensation. The Prelude to Part II was well shaped, the sensitive playing of the Philharmonia’s strings transporting us to Another Place. Bowen obtained fine playing from the orchestra throughout the evening and evidenced a definite and instinctive empathy with Elgar’s music. Very rightly, he ensured there was no damaging interval between Parts I and II, just a break of two or three minutes. That’s the way the work should always be presented though arguably it was a mistake for Bowen and the soloists to leave the platform; the audience chatter that broke out proved hard to quell.
This was a very good performance which upheld the Three Choirs Festival’s Gerontius tradition in a worthy manner.
Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org