The Dream of Gerontius
ANTHONY FRIEND tells how, despite its lack of theatricality, The Dream of Gerontius a was compelling and sensitive performance.
Saturday 22nd January, King’s College Chapel. Sir Richard Armstrong, CUMS 1, Members of CUCO, Choirs of Clare, Gonville & Caius, Jesus, Selwyn and Trinity Colleges
In his preview of last Friday, Joe Bates predicted that Dream of Gerontius would provide the bang with which to start the term’s music making. Instead it started with a confused silence as the orchestra finished tuning and awaited their soloists. The atmosphere was ruined by awkward coughing; one of several factors which weakened the theatricality of the evening, but the standard of singing remained absolutely superlative.
Although Elgar never described The Dream of Gerontius as an oratorio, it is often billed as one, and if God, angels and Purgatory aren’t religious, then I don’t know what is. The scope of the work, however, is operatic; its striking opening shows Gerontius on his death-bed, crying out, ‘JESU, MARIA—I am near to death, / And Thou art calling me; I know it now.’
It would seem that tonight’s soloists did not see the dramatic elements of the piece as being so central to its identity. Peter Wedd (tenor) was rather severe as Gerontius and not as angst-ridden as he might have been, whilst Louise Poole (mezzo-soprano) was less a sympathetic angel than expected. The communication between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel was undermined as they faced away from each other, turning around every so ofter for a few token glances. Whilst I wasn’t after ‘chemistry’ per se, some level of emotional interaction between the characters would have been desirable.
Despite the lack of attention to dramatic detail, the production was excellent. The standard of the singing was very high and at his more intense moments (‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’ in Part One and ‘Take me away’ in Part Two) Wedd was extremely convincing and affecting. Louise Poole dragged occasionally but was excellent nevertheless, sounding rich and luxurious throughout her range. I was sad, in a way, that the role for the bass-baritone soloist in Gerontius is comparatively minor, as Darren Jeffery was vocally stunning and emotionally compelling as the Priest and the Angel of Agony.
Richard Strauss (backhandedly) complimented Elgar as “the first English progressivist” with Gerontius in mind, and the work feels unmistakably German. Despite this, performers tend towards saccharine Victorian sentimentality, but Sir Richard Armstrong successfully avoided this in tonight’s performance. The orchestra was tastefully restrained for as long as possible in the Prelude to Part One, almost to the point of sounding overly-tentative, before a rumble from its depths triggered an eruption into rich chromaticism. The sound was never brash, always fully supported, and there were some lovely moments, including sensitive wind and horn solos. These more than made up for any minor blemishes of intonation or ensemble.
The chorus, composed of five of the best mixed choirs Cambridge has to offer, was consistently excellent. ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ and ‘Rescue him, O Lord’ were particularly impassioned, and when the chorus became demons in Part Two the energy of the ensemble was electric.
Despite the high ticket prices (the cheapest student ticket was £16), it was no wonder that King’s Chapel was packed: the concert featured a great lineup and was a strong start to the term for CUMS.