Last ounce of spirituality missing from The Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Williams, Elgar: Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Norman (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), The Bach Choir (musical director: David Hill), Philharmonia Orchestra / David Hill (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.5.2024. (JR)

David Hill conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra © Andy Paradise

Roderick WilliamsCusp (world premiere)
ElgarThe Dream of Gerontius

The Bach Choir has a strong commitment to new music, and they aim to commission a new work every two years. The choir has for some time had a close relationship with baritone Roderick Williams, and they turned to him as a composer for a new work to precede the The Dream of Gerontius. With the poet Rommi Smith, he has produced Cusp, an unusual and not unattractive piece on the subject of death which is designed to complement the Elgar. I had expected Williams to take more of active part in his own work but, humble as he is, he hardly sings at all; he sits and, for the most part, watches the reaction of the audience with his customary wry smile; the chorus gets the lion’s share of the work and they sing it clearly and well.

The 20-minute piece starts and ends with a recording of a hospital recovery room – I have to say, if I had not read the programme, I would have had no inkling of what the sounds were meant to represent. Williams interviewed a number of singers with The Bach Choir who had suffered bereavement, and their experiences and quotes are used in the libretto. The work is divided into the four seasons of grieving, Autumn to represent decline and death, Winter is grief, Spring is hope, and Summer is memory and healing. It is a moving piece, with an intelligent libretto by the poet Smith though it rather outstays its welcome. ‘Ask me what love is? Sometimes, it’s a cup of tea’ is a line I really liked.

Musically, Williams steers a firmly tonal path with just one discordance and clear affinity with the English choral tradition – I heard the sound worlds of Britten, Rutter and Tippett. The choir has plenty of work to do, with several lines layered piecemeal across the sections. The orchestration has its own charm, with plentiful use of percussion. I would recommend the use of surtitles in future performances as not everyone was following the words printed in the programme and would have found some of the text inaudible.

The audience were requested at the start of the concert to refrain from applauding at the end of the Williams work which led seamlessly and effectively into the Prologue of the Elgar. Personally, I would have preferred the Elgar to have stood on its own and not have to be divided into two halves with an interval.

David Hill conducts The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra © Andy Paradise

David Hill wrote the very lengthy programme notes introducing the Elgar. He stressed that the work presents tremendous challenges to all its performers. The tenor has a gargantuan task and needs plenty of stamina. The soprano, as the Angel, needs to conjure up ethereal beauty, to ravish the senses. Hill writes: ‘In the end it is the compelling beauty of the sound itself which makes so many of us long to hear the work again and again, once the Angel’s farewell has echoed away into the distance’.

Tenor Daniel Norman has sung the role of Gerontius but not in London. He had excellent eye contact with the audience, and appropriate gestures but I was not entirely convinced by his portrayal: I heard no exasperation, no pleading. Though he had tried to keep some heft in his voice in reserve, his ‘Sanctus Fortis’ and ‘Take Me Away’, highlights of the work, lacked power and desperation and we heard the odd croak. Norman will be joining the ensemble of Zurich Opera in the coming season and will be a valuable addition to their number. Roderick Williams, as baritone, can do no wrong and he was faultless as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. He rode over the sound of the full orchestra and 200-strong choir with ease. Jennifer Johnston was impressive in her low registers; sadly the top note of her final ‘Alleluia’ went awry. Her final farewell ‘Softly and gently’ was comforting and sublimely delivered.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played well; inevitably with little rehearsal and the conductor, keeping an even tempo, neither rushed nor dragged, focussing on the choral parts. I missed some Elgarian orchestral sweep and articulation.

The Bach Choir were splendid across the board, even though the tenors were heavily outnumbered by the other sections. Diction was clear, intonation flawless, the difficult technical section as demons convincingly and accurately portrayed, with the right degree of nastiness in ‘dispossessed, aside thrust, chucked down’. They took up every seat in the choir section and in ‘Praise to the holiest’, compounded by the organ, made a thrilling and uplifting sound. I was particularly taken by the altos, most rhythmic in the ‘To us His elder race’ section.

Ultimately, this was not perhaps the most moving Gerontius I have heard, the last ounce of spirituality and hushed magic were missing, it proved not to be much of an emotional experience; the tenor was perhaps the least convincing of the trio of soloists, but it was certainly a good quality performance and, as David Hill said, it is always good to hear a performance of Elgar’s choral masterpiece.

John Rhodes

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