“This is the best of me […] this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory”. Thus Elgar inscribed a quotation from John Ruskin on the final page of the manuscript of the score of The Dream of Gerontius. If Noël Coward quipped about the potency of cheap music, it is not surprising that deeply spiritual music should be triply potent. And it doesn’t come much deeper or spiritually engaging as this oratorio.

Mark Le Brocq © Hazard Chase
Mark Le Brocq
© Hazard Chase

It is a setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem of the same name to music, and while the theology behind it is overtly catholic, the emotions and themes it unearths are universal. Divided into two parts, the first half tells the story of an old man on his deathbed and his fears about the afterlife. The second stage depicts the particular judgement of the man’s soul as he is led to purgatory.

Like Gerontius’ angel, we were in safe hands with Gerhard Markson, a former principal conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Meticulous, ever eager to plumb the depths of the music, he brought intensity and dramatic pacing to the music that prevented it from becoming clunky or from being weighed down by its own religiosity.

The prelude rumbled with foreboding swelling to thunderous climaxes. If at times the brass was too intrusive on the tapestry of sound, the sonic boom of the judgement call at the end of the oratorio on the trumpets was truly and appropriately shocking. Markson elicited some delectable wisps of sound in the Sanctis fortis and the opening of the “Praise to the holiest in the height” wafted heaven-wards. Keeping the rhythm taut, the counterpoint of the chorus of demons crackled with energy.

The orchestra responded with alacrity too, playing their hearts out in the expressive moments and dropping their sound to match the soloists. When the Soul of Gerontius is about to go before his Maker, the ppp of the orchestra added hugely to the tension.

Tenor Mark Le Brocq stood out among the impressive trio of soloists. Possessing a tight vibrato, pellucid diction and a consistently warm sounding voice, he convincingly portrayed the gamut of emotion of Gerontius. In particular, Le Brocq conveyed the loneliness and sorrow of impending death in Sanctus fortis brilliantly, his passionate pleas to pray for his eternal repose being highly charged.

There was a gentleness and mellowness to Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’ Angel from her entry in Part Two of the oratorio. Hers is a pleasing, sweet voice that sounded at its best when the orchestra was at a low volume. The dialogue with the Soul of Gerontius was sometimes gently consoling and later on, as her voice opened up, morally eloquent. There was a spine-tingling moment as Afonwy-Jones explained about the purifying flame of “Everlasting Love”.

Completing the trio of soloists was Neal Davies whose powerful bass-baritone voice projected clearly in the first half as priest. He imbued his role as The Angel of the Agony in the second half with stately gravitas, his rich voice producing a powerful effect in his plea to Jesus to hasten the souls passage through purgatory.

The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir impressed with their finely shaped phrasing and imaginative use of dynamics. Their sinister laughs had a demonic ring to it while the contrapuntal lines of “O loving wisdom” of the choir of angelicals rang out clearly. If one was to quibble, I found it a tad difficult to make out all the words though this was not too unsurprising given the size of the choir. The oratorio’s final “Praise to the Holiest” was like the sigh of a prayer, peace emanating forth and hovering in the silence for what must have been close to two minutes at the end. "The rest is silence".