The timing of the first Dublin performance in about a decade of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius on Friday couldn't have been more appropriate, coming as it did in the year that Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose text Elgar set to music, was canonised. Better still was that the performance under the baton of Belfast-born conductor Kenneth Montgomery captured every nuance of the dying Gerontius' fear of death, his wonder at the sensations that overwhelm him in the afterlife, his spurning of the tormented condemned souls and the epiphany of his fleeting but powerful instant in the presence of his God.

Norbert Ernst © Michael Poehn
Norbert Ernst
© Michael Poehn

The forces arrayed were massive: three top-flight soloists, the full RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir filling the entire choir balcony, plus the concert organ. Montgomery, with the assistance of choirmaster David Young, did a superb job of shaping a high-energy performance that at times raised the roof and at others was poignant and moving.

Special credit must be given to the excellent soloists. Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst set a high standard for the evening with his opening “Jesu, Maria, I am near death” and never flagged, despite being in the spotlight for almost the entire 90 minutes. Ernst, who has sung various Wagnerian roles, brought something of Parsifal to Gerontius – an innocent who attains wisdom at the end.

British mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a powerful but loving presence as the Angel who guides Gerontius on his way to his glimpse of God, and then on to purgatory – eschewing the demons (fallen angels) along the way. Swedish baritone Johan Wållberg brought strength and gravitas to his double-duty role as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers © Paul Foster-Williams
Catherine Wyn-Rogers
© Paul Foster-Williams

The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir was in top form, and seemed to be having great fun in the diabolical passage of the condemned souls who sing blasphemously: “What's a saint? ...One whose breath doth the air taint before his death... a bundle of bones which fools adore” – adding, cynically, “Ha ha, ha ha.” That section was presaged with deliciously raucous and rude slides from the trombones.

All told, this was a magnificent evening of music in a city that Cardinal Newman knew well from his tenure as the first rector of the then newly founded Catholic University of Ireland, later to become University College Dublin. A blessed and significant musical event for Dublin, if ever there was one.

****1