Elgar is in the Hallé's bloodstream as Strauss' is in the Vienna Philharmonic's. Successive generations of Hallé players have performed his works, from the original Principal Conductor, Hans Richter's, première of the First Symphony to Sir John Barbirolli's famous advocacy in the mid-20th century. The ghosts of Elgar interpreters past continue to haunt this orchestra.
This is no bad thing. Current Principal Conductor Sir Mark Elder, although very much his own man, is respectful of the tradition he has inherited and his Elgar performances pull off the difficult feat of echoing those of his distinguished forebears whilst still sounding newly-minted. Occupying every space of the vast Bridgewater Hall stage, the Halle forces, augmented by the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir, began this performance of The Dream Of Gerontius with the familiar, unhurried sangfroid that characterises Elder's performances of such large-scale works. He coaxed particlarly eloquent work from his double basses and violins in the Prologue, bringing out the 'family resemblances' to other works of the period, notably Parsifal and the later Bruckner symphonies. The sick-room of the titular invalid was powerfully evoked. There is a lot of Amfortas' Klage about Gerontius' dying agony in Part 1 and tenor David Butt Philip was fully equal to the demands made on him, every word perfectly articulated and rising above even the most forceful of the orchestral tuttis. It is this kind of power in reserve that marks Butt Philip out as a unique talent, a lyrical tenor with a sweetly plangent tone who has power in reserve. He was ably supported by Iain Paterson, whose brief interjections as the Priest had telling force.
The same virtues were present in the choral contribution; clean articulation and passionate delivery of Cardinal Newman's words, with the choristers incarnating angels and demons with equal facility. The piano phrasing alternating with fortissimos that ends Part 1 was virtuosically dealt with by the choir under the direction of Matthew Hamilton.
In some ways it was a shame that mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke's arrival on stage for Part 2 was greeted with applause, as this broke the mood that Elder and his forces had laboured so hard to create over the previous hour. But the breach was soon repaired and the soul's journey into heaven was the ethereal experience Elgar intended with the dialogue between Gerontius and the Angel for once not seeming like an intrusion from an opera but a vivid part of the whole. The interruptive force of the Demons' Chorus galvanised the performance and the hymn that powers the oratorio to its conclusion – with the Soul being 'taken away' to Purgatory – fuflilled Elgar's intention in imaginging the barely imaginable.
A triumphant rendering, then, of a work that cannot survive anything less than a committed performance. It was a pity that the applause coudn't wait until Elder had dropped his hands: we needed that moment to linger on the impact of the final, solemn Amen.
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