Widely regarded as one of Elgar’s masterpieces, and surely his finest choral work, The Dream of Gerontius is a mainstay of the classical repertoire in Britain – indeed the BBC described it as a “national monument”. It’s not so commonly performed in Australia, however, perhaps in part because of the mighty forces required to realise this work’s dramatic vocal and orchestral scope. So it was with considerable anticipation that the audience gathered for the first of two performances by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Sir Andrew Davis
© Lucas Dawson

Adding to the excitement was the return of internationally renowned Australian Heldentenor Stuart Skelton, one of three soloists squeezed in at the edge of Hamer Hall’s very full stage. They were joined by a mass of voices gathered behind the orchestra, and in the rarely used choir seating above, to left and right. Together, these musicians and singers made a grand sight and, for the most part, a grand sound.

The Dream of Gerontius is often described as an oratorio, but inappropriately as it has no breaks (apart from the interval in this performance, taken after the subject’s death). The text is adapted from Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem of the same name, about a man’s death, judgement before God and passing into Purgatory. At the end of the manuscript, Elgar wrote: “This is the best of me”. It was far from at its best at the premiere in 1900, however, as the choir was ill-prepared (not only because the music was progressive for its time), and the chorusmaster took umbrage at the text’s Catholic doctrine. This anti-Catholic sentiment continued to dog the work in Britain for some years.

The MSO’s chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis marshalled his many troops – who probably filled his entire field of vision – with accustomed assurance, conjuring powerful tonal imagery during this journey of the soul. Rising like a silky mist in the prelude, the sound from the vast sea of strings ebbed and flowed flawlessly throughout the concert. Sombre woodwind and precise little flashes of percussion also impressed.

Orchestral and vocal textures were handsomely woven together, but ultimately the singers captured the imagination – particularly those nameless hundreds of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Trinity College Choir. They followed Davis’ lead with exactitude, and were notable for their dynamic agility and a harmoniousness – including as a double chorus in eight parts – that comes down to faithful rehearsal. In full voice, they delivered a performance highlight with Part Two’s Choir of Angelicals “Praise to the holiest in the height”, but kudos also for the dignity they gave to the Demons’ potentially silly Victorian laughter. At the concert’s conclusion, the warm reception of MSO chorusmaster Warren Trevelyan-Jones and Trinity College Choir’s music director Christopher Watson was well deserved.

Surprisingly, the soloists didn’t quite live up to the choir’s excellence. Skelton was not quite on top form: several times he was unable to sustain the soft, almost spoken notes of Gerontius. Arguably he’s not ideally suited to the often meekly-voiced role of a penitent man on his deathbed, quaking before his creator. Skelton revealed his renowned capacity for Wagnerian drama, however, most notably in a big, beautifully expressed Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus. As Gerontius’ guardian angel, British mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers was polished. Her diction and phrasing were splendid, though she over-egged the vibrato slightly. Canadian Nathan Berg, in the small dual roles of the priest and the Angel of the Agony, revealed a rich, strong bass-baritone reminiscent of burnished mahogany.

The MSO’s Dream of Gerontius wasn’t quite as dreamy as some may have hoped. It was, however, exceedingly good for the most part, and a welcome opportunity for Melburnians to hear Elgar in choral mode.