The Dream of Gerontius, Barbican Hall

He later said that ideas for a setting had been “soaking in my mind for at least eight years” when he set about preparing a libretto for a new work to be performed at the 1900 Birmingham Festival. At the end of the score Elgar inscribed words from Ruskin:
“this is the best of me”. Unfortunately, technical deficiencies and
inadequate rehearsal resulted in a less than satisfactory first performance,
leading the composer to despair, “I always said God was against art … I
have allowed my heart to open once – it is now shut against every religious
feeling and every soft, gentle impulse forever”. A little melodramatic
perhaps … but a sign of Elgar’s complex and at times troubled faith, and of
the work’s importance to him.

Preparations for this performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony
Orchestra and Chorus were not entirely smooth either, with both conductor,
Andris Nilson (owing to a family illness), and tenor Toby Spence forced to
withdraw in the preceding days. However, under the baton of the CBSO’s
principal guest conductor, Edward Gardner, and with Robert Murray stepping into
Gerontius’ shoes, there was certainly no danger of a repeat of the chaotic
premiere. In lesser hands, this intricate, mysterious work can become muddy and
messy; Gardner summoned from his performers a controlled piece of musical drama
that captured both the work’s theatricality and its poetry.

Robert Murray has the vocal resources to meet the considerable demands of
the role; his voice pleasingly balanced restraint and passion, and he was
consistently attentive to the dynamic markings, though never slavishly so,
bringing genuine expressivity to moments of power and poignancy. Although a
little diffident at the start, Murray had the confidence to trust his
introspective reading, and not to indulge in excessively showy operatics. His
upper range possesses emotive impact; he has the power to carry above even the
most surging orchestral passages without undue strain, but also the poise to
float the quietest pianissimo. He conveyed the old man’s restless anxiety in
Part 1 when facing death, and displayed rhetorical vigour in his heroic prayer
for God’s strength “Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus”. And a sonorous
intensity marked the Soul’s climactic cry, “Take me away, and in the lowest
depth there let me be”.

Murray’s Part 2 duet with the Angel, sung by Sarah Connolly, took a little
while to get into its stride, but was moving and convincing. As the Angel
guides Gerontius’ soul, Connolly’s rich, burnished mezzo combined strength
and tenderness, expressing profound sentiment but never sentimental. She has a
strong lower range, and the text was thoughtfully nuanced. The Angel’s
farewell blessing at the close of Part 2 was truly beautiful — open, warm and
full of hope and promise. And, after the work’s emotional storms, the
composure of Connolly’s full-toned final lullaby, “Soft and gentle, dearly
ransomed Soul” brought a satisfying equanimity.

Fittingly dramatic interventions were made by James Rutherford, first in his
stirring invocation as the Priest at the close of Part 1, “Proficiscere,
anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”,
as Gardner drove forward with a thrilling accelerando, and later as the Angel
of Agony at the corresponding conclusion to Part 2. Rutherford’s weight of
tone and long-breathed phrasing added much liturgical authority and gravity.

All three soloists displayed a sure appreciation of Elgar’s declamatory,
arioso style, allowing the musical phrases to breathe while retaining a
naturalistic accentuation of text.

Gardner was totally in command of the work’s motivic complexities, tonal
ambiguities and flexible formal qualities. From the hushed beginnings of the
Prologue, he crafted a seamless orchestral tapestry: as clarinets, bassoons and
violas introduced the plaintive opening theme, initially unaccompanied and then
supported by pensive double basses and low woodwind, the symphonic seeds from
which the work unfolds were made evident. Gardner never allowed the orchestral
forces to overwhelm the singers but ensured too that that his players did not
take second place, that the instrumental voices were equal partners in the
musical conversation, involved in the expressive drama and commentating on the
action. On a few occasions — in the Prelude and building to the climactic
“Take me away” – the tempi seemed a little on slow side, but Gardner did
successfully build momentum in the climactic passages. He is at home with the
theatricality of the work but, while he did not miss a single gesture or
intimation in detailed score, he was never melodramatic.

Elgar makes huge demands upon the chorus, and the CBSO Chorus assuredly rose
to the challenge, mastering the contrapuntal complexities, displaying depth of
tone and rhythmic vitality, and articulating the words with clarity. They
convincingly adopted a variety of roles and explored a range of colours: as
Gerontius’ ‘Assistants’ praying earnestly by his bedside in a burial
chorus, their appeals to God to “Rescue him … in this his evil hour” were
vibrant and energised; in contrast, the sopranos’ closing invocation in Part
1, “And may thy place today be found in peace … through the Same, through
Christ Our Lord” was shimmering and translucent. A pure, centred tone
characterised the Part 2 Chorus of Angelicals, “Praise to the Holiest in his
height”, beautifully shaped phrases enhanced by the gentle harp

The Demons’ Chorus was a tour de force: powerful unisons above whirling
strings and flashing piccolo shrieks made great impact, as during a vigorously
exchange with the orchestra, Gardner crafted impressive motivic coherence.
Here, as throughout, vividness was never achieved at the expense of clarity and

This performance attained rich emotional depths. Religiosity was balanced
with humanity, as in moments such as the Assistants’ imploring appeal, “Be
merciful, be gracious, spare him, Lord”, where the strained timbre of the
violins’ high G-strings possessed both an eloquent power and intimations of
human frailty.

The most electrifying moment in the work comes as the Soul finally departs,
to be “Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God”. Here Gardner
conjured a thrilling crescendo, building to an awe-inspiring climactic discord
from the full orchestra complemented with organ and percussion. The moment of
insight is brief — a dazzling but momentary glimpse of truth — followed by
stillness, as the sforzando eruption gives way instantly to a tremulous
pianissimo. In this blinding moment, simultaneous conveying both faith and
doubt, Gardner and his performers fully captured the universality of Elgar’s

Claire Seymour

image_description=Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
product_by=Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; James Rutherford,
bass-baritone. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Edward
Gardner, conductor. Barbican Hall, London, Saturday, 14 April 2012.
product_id=Above: Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]