In the opening bars of the prelude to The Dream of Gerontius, perhaps Elgar’s  greatest choral work, the melancholy violas are joined by muted strings and low woodwind, underpinned by soft growls from the brass, painting a vivid picture of old Gerontius on his deathbed, surrounded by friends. Yet as the music becomes richer and more chromatic, the cellos soaring in intensity and the organ bursts into life rumbling through a thrilling climax, these early moments demonstrate that Cardinal Newman’s tale of a soul’s final journey was deeply felt by the Catholic composer. It was a fascinating beginning as conductor Peter Oundjian drew gentle curves, nursing the early fragile melodies, as if drawing us listeners in close to a fireside, eager to hear the compelling story of a soul’s journey.

Toby Spence © Mitch Jenkins
Toby Spence
© Mitch Jenkins

Gerontius is a work with a troubled history, from a disaster of a first performance to a deep unease in Anglican circles over the strong Catholic message, and indeed, a ‘toned-down’ version had to be written for the Three Choirs Festival. If today, for those whom Newman’s poem is a bit of a struggle, then it is Elgar’s wonderfully lyrical and passionate music with holds the appeal for this work, and the RSNO in this final concert of the season rose magnificently to the occasion with finely judged playing and some stirring moments.

Toby Spence was an intense, bright-voiced Gerontius, his every word crystal clear from the back of the hall, but his light voice occasionally lacking the heft to match the waves of orchestral passion. It was in the second half that he really took off as the Soul journeying on, his excitement building as the Judgement approached, and his deep peace reached as he is dispatched to Purgatory having glimpsed his Maker. Alan Opie sang the Priest with sonorous deep authority releasing the Soul of Gerontius, commanding it to go form this world. Opie also clearly relished the part of the Angel of the Agony, his rich voice rising in an eleventh hour chance to plead to God on behalf of this lost and dying soul.

The performance lit up with the arrival of Sarah Connolly, the Guardian Angel who accompanies the Soul on the journey. She really has a glorious voice, perfect for this role with her warmth in the lower register deeply comforting, yet with a steely firmness to guide the Soul past demons and the rites of passage as it enters the strange spiritual world. If this is how things go at the end, Connolly would indeed make a superb companion. The long dialogue between Spence and Connolly was a delight, Spence at times turning to gaze at his Angel with what looked like genuine deep and tender adoration.

This work makes big demands from its chorus who have a large part to play, variously as ‘Assistants’ round the deathbed, laughing sinister Demons and finally a Choir of Angelicals. There is no getting away from the fact that there were some uncomfortably rough edges, particularly in the softly sung exposed passages, with the voices dividing into eight parts. The fugal Demons were certainly exciting but not quite as menacing as I would have liked. More happily, the big set pieces produced a glorious sound, with Newman’s hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” finally ringing through the hall. The large and experienced RSNO Chorus has a new Chorus Director, Gregory Batsleer, already working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, so it will be interesting to follow his progress as the orchestra’s 125th anniversary season opens with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in October.

The composer dedicated this work “To the greater glory of God” and signed off with “This is the best of me”. Peter Oundjian, fascinating to watch with his ever-flowing gestures drew eloquent playing from the orchestra and brought a resonant depth to this performance of Elgar’s period-piece work.