Whatever your theological convictions, Christian or otherwise, it is doubtless that the collective elements that make up The Dream of Gerontius contribute to one of the greatest works of both English literature and the English Choral Tradition. The poem, by Cardinal John Henry Newman (Beatified in 2010), received instant success following its initial publication in two parts in the May and June issues of the Catholic periodical The Month in 1865. Its popularity was such that it bridged gaps between various faiths not on the grounds of theological ideology of what happens to the soul after death, but rather on the grounds of accepting one’s own mortality, humility and, if you believe it so, forthcoming judgement. For Elgar, a practicing Catholic, these ideologies were fact and the Dream made important appearances throughout his life; he gave a copy to his future wife, Alice, on the death of her mother and himself received a copy from his priest as a gift on his marriage. When Elgar was commissioned to compose a work for the 1900 Birmingham Festival, Newman’s Dream was suggested. Being so intimately acquainted with the poem, Elgar entrusted part of the task of text selection to others, himself unable to decide what to and what not to include; finally around three-hundred lines from over nine-hundred were chosen for musical setting.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

Initially the work’s difficulty was underestimated and the première a disaster, though, fortunately, it was not long before the Dream received more compelling performances leading to its acceptance as a masterpiece and, perhaps, Elgar’s magnum opus.

The evening marked my second attempt at hearing Andris Nelsons conduct the CBSO though he was again indisposed and in his absence Edward Gardner took to the podium. Similarly, programmed tenor Toby Spence was unable to attend and Robert Murray sang the parts of Gerontius and The Soul. The absence of neither originally intended gentleman was long lamented as Gardner and Murray respectively conducted and sang excellently.
A remarkably restrained work, filled with much doubt and anxiety from the opening Prelude and throughout Gardner maintained a high level of control over the orchestra who blossomed brilliantly in Elgar’s mixed score of heavy light and shade juxtaposed against sections of extended Parsifal-like lyricism.

Murray’s Gerontius was at once feeble and passionate, unravelling Newman’s story of the ailing man facing death with excellent diction. Some high notes were ill-prepared but in such a taxing score (and at short notice) this was forgivable.

The chorus were prepared to an exemplary standard and they, along with their chorus master Simon Halsey, are to be commended for their abilities. I had just two small gripes, firstly in Part One, the chorus and semi-chorus beginning ‘Noe, from the waters’, should in my view, certainly have been slower and the responding ‘Amen’ softer and more ethereal, leading towards Gerontius’ painful ‘Novissima hora est’, and, in Part Two, the Demon’s Chorus might have been a little more terrifying.

Baritone James Rutherford brought Part One to an exultant close with his deeply mellow, resounding Priest filling the Symphony Hall, backed by a rhythmically insistent CBSO chorus.

After a brief pause, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was welcomed to the platform looking suitably angelic in a one-piece, flowing white dress – always a popular choice amongst singers undertaking the part of The Angel. Radiant and warm, tender and rich in tone, Connolly excels in Elgar’s dramatic writing always opting for the more taxing notes where he provides easier alternatives.

Sadly, the orchestral introduction leading up to Gerontius’ vision of God was certainly too fast and this decreased the dramatic tension – a slower, more trepid procession to the Lord, à la Barbirolli, gives this moment, which is the climax of the whole work, a much more profound gravitas and should never be rushed. Thereafter Gerontius’ immediate agony was made clear in Murray’s bittersweet submission as he is delivered in to Purgatory. Connolly soothed the Soul of Gerontius as well as every man, woman and child in Birmingham as softly and gently as one could hope for in an angel.

‘This is the best of me’, wrote Elgar on the completed score, quoting Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies and, whether you accept Elgar’s Dream as a deeply personal exhortation or a work that speaks universally for all mankind, tonight’s performance from the CBSO in the magnificent acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, received at least a full twenty-seconds of absolute silence at its close, broken only by the occasional contented and joyful splash of a tear, before the audience applauded and cheered until their hands were red and sore.

The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and may be heard online for a limited time: ‘Hark to those sounds!’