Conductor Joachim Krause faced a Herculean effort in staging the work Elgar himself cited as “the best of me”. The Zurich performance featured the 170 members of two combined Swiss cities’ choirs (Der Gemischte Chor Zürich and the Basler Bach-Chor) alongside the Basel Sinfonietta orchestra and three accomplished soloists. Composed in 1900, this music was to resound for the first time in the acoustic space of the Zurich hall − built just 13 years prior − such that the two Victorian ‘works’ complemented one another nicely.

Ileana Mateescu © Karin Scheuer
Ileana Mateescu
© Karin Scheuer
Scored for tenor, mezzo soprano, bass, chorus and orchestra, Elgar’s Gerontius was adapted − and close to two-thirds condensed − from a poem of some 900 lines that Cardinal Newman crafted in 1865. Elgar received a copy from a friend on his own wedding day, an odd choice of gift, since it is the story of a pious man’s journey from the time just prior to his death to his judgment before God, and his passage into Purgatory. A fastidious wedding planner would not want to go there! The narrative sees Gerontius joined by a guardian angel, a priest and an ‘angel of agony’. The choir in turn, sings the roles of the ‘attendants’ (friends) by the deathbed, a host of threatening demons, a female band of melodic ‘angelicals’, and the collective souls in the afterworld.

Yet the Elgar work was considered revolutionary for its time and remains a haunting meditation on the daunting intangibles of Roman Catholic theology even today. It is a work whose dramatic intensity and confrontation with terror, supplication, a sense of acceptance and ultimate glory run up a roster of all the emotions.

In Zurich, the oratorio’s opening prelude in Part I introduced melodic themes, and I was immediately reminded of pastorals that were the composer’s inspiration. He knew the English countryside intimately, walking and bicycling dozens of miles as he did every day. The vocal parts, though, began with Gerontius’s prayer “Be with me Lord, in my extremity”, largely underscored with strong horn and percussion, whose vital presence was highly commendable throughout. That first appeal flowed easily into the entrance of the assistants, who also asked the Lord for intervention. Then in his Santus Fortis, tenor Thomas Mohr began a long and demanding affirmation of his faith, not without some unevenness, however. His high note on “each thought and deed unruly do to death” broke, and his volume – albeit sometimes to hold up over the choir − was too loud for my taste. Singing “I can no more… that sense of ruin…” about the failures of an earthly life that haunt him as a dying man, any attention paid to the sensitive lyric palled in the name of belting out the words.

By the same token, the choir was magnificent, even at that size showing nuances in colour, volume and heft. When it broke in to “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul” the hair stood up on my forearms. Remarkably, even a body as large as the choir’s convincingly conveyed the hope of the dying man’s finding “thy place in peace”. In my program I wrote one word to describe how the friends delivered their last words to him: ‘lovingly’. That was exactly how anyone on a deathbed would want it, and coming from 170 choristers the sentiment was nothing short of powerful. The accompanying Priest (Werner Van Mechelen) also made a solidly credible figure, his warm bass both compassionate and variable.

Part II of Gerontius introduced the Angel (Ileana Mateescu) whose role is pivotal in the second half. She prepares, and accompanies Gerontius to his brief audience before the Lord, warning “that sight will gladden thee, but pierce thee too”. The Angel could have been more demonstrative, but nonetheless, her performance was a good one, and might only have been better had she occasionally made eye contact with her charge, Gerontius, given that she was working on his behalf.

The cacophonous ‘uncouth dissonance’ of the demons was terrific: another grand moment for the choir and the fine horns. Its repeated and strident “ha-ha!” were clearly more condemnation than laugh, although I admit to giggling over the line “What’s a saint? …a bundle of bones”. There’s little humour elsewhere, but in sum, this performance did justice to what is the culmination of Elgar’s most poignant musical expression. “I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us,” he once said. We all made mistakes. We are all imperfect. We all seek some kind of salvation. But what a piece of work is man, indeed; Elgar’s monumental work is the proof of the pudding.