Elgar: Dream of Gerontius

"the finest live performance I can remember experiencing."

Anyone for whom The Dream of Gerontius is a profoundly moving experience might well hesitate before attending a live performance. Why?  Well, so few are anything like a match for the wonderful recordings with which it is blest: versions by Barbirolli, Britten, Hickox, Rattle, Elder and Davis each have an enthusiastic following. But live?  Rarely are the soloists perfectly matched to role, rarely are the tricky bits of ensemble really together, rarely does the choir remain completely united in (for instance) the Demons’ chorus, rarely does an orchestra find the very heart and soul of Elgar’s most profound and inspired writing, and, sadly, rarely does the conductor manage to find those elusive ideal speeds.

Any such fears were dispelled right at the start of the Oxford Bach Choir’s performance, where from his first upbeat, Benjamin Nicholas connected, via the sublime playing of the CBSO, with the very essence of this music. The Prelude gradually unfolded, totally unhurried, a perfect exposition of the fears and hopes enshrined in Gerontius’s anxious mind:  judgement, fear, prayer, sleep, mercy, despair etc – all Elgar’s leitmotifs were clearly delineated, as they continued to be when the excellent Gerontius – tenor Ed Lyon – entered.  We were on safe ground.  Safer still when, from an elevated position, Roderick Williams (Priest) in due course declaimed his stentorian entry – a high D on ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana’.  The semi-chorus entered captivatingly with their first, hushed entry at ‘Kyrie eleison’, observing every marking in the following section, which, like so much Elgar, is peppered with directions.  Observe the markings and Elgar’s music springs alive: it did.  Well-blended and ætherial, they then sang their chanted section beautifully and the full chorus thrilled in the grand build-up at ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ and later at the climax of ‘Go forth’ where the combined power of the choir, orchestra and organ almost lifted Christopher Wren’s roof.  Only one moment in Part One felt to me to lack its true impact – Gerontius’s climactic high B flat on ‘In thine own agony’ (a minim with a pause, marked ‘ad lib.’ on ‘own’) was all too short to convey the stretched-out agony implied.

The duet section near the start of Part Two was immaculately held together by the conductor – despite the soloists being situated behind his back (never a good idea); by then Gerontius had been joined by a golden-toned Angel, Kathryn Rudge.  From her first note it was clear that she had the rôle in her head and heart, scarcely needing to glance at the score.  Hers was a lustrous performance, marred only by a slight reluctance to sing on the beat from time to time. Roderick Williams re-entered, this time as an immensely impressive Angel of the Agony, for which he appropriately adopted a somewhat different tone and style from the Priest in Part One.  The famous ‘Demons’ chorus’ was sung with verve, conviction and appropriate nastiness by the choir, with no hint of the ‘Dispossessed’ fugue running away with itself, as it so often can.  Every word was audible too – a real achievement.  The semi-chorus proved as angelic as in Part One, when they began the extended ‘Praise to the Holiest’ section, the main chorus being excellent in clarity and diction when they entered.  The wonderful climax at the end of this section can be tricky to attach to what comes next (on LP recordings it was generally at a change of side!), but the Sheldonian’s often rather unreliable digital organ helped with its sonorous and all-pervading 32ft bass notes linking the sections.  The immense, life-changing orchestral climax at ‘Take me away’, at which point Elgar wrote in his full score “for one moment must every instrument exert its fullest force”, was excoriatingly emotional, Ed Lyon powering out the six-beat high A as if it were the last note he – Gerontius – would ever sing.   A moment of absolute togetherness and complete connection came when the tenors and basses (Souls) lowered their scores and sang ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’ from memory – what a splendid idea.  And then, of course, came the sublime Angel’s Farewell – Elgar’s answer to Wagner’s Isolde’s Liebestod – sung by Kathryn Rudge as beautifully as I have ever heard it.

I have performed in, attended, rehearsed and conducted many a Gerontius over the past fifty years – including listening to several in its ‘home territory’ of the Three Choirs Festival.  In all honesty I can assert that this was the finest live performance I can remember experiencing.  Much of that was due to the Oxford Bach Choir’s recently-arrived conductor – Benjamin Nicholas, whose musicianship, detailed preparation, fine choir-training, perfectly-tuned instinct for every tempo the music demands, and clear, calm, accurate, modest beat ensured that nothing stood in the way of Cardinal Newman’s visionary poem and Elgar’s inspired music.  A concert (dedicated to the memory of Sir Stephen Cleobury, some of whose family were present) which will long remain in the memory of all present.

Paul Hale

Musical Director, Nottingham Bach Choir, 1990-2019; Southwell Cathedral Organist Emeritus

December 2019