Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius tells the story of a pious man’s death, his travels through Purgatory and finally being accepted into Heaven. It is perhaps not the most dramatic of tales, but one filled with a sense of redemption and intense spirituality. Sunday’s concert provided some truly excellent performances from all involved, but ultimately fizzled into nothingness due to the choice of venue.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

My main gripe with Gerontius is that it’s all a bit much. While I enjoy the unashamed exuberance of the choruses praising God, or Gerontius’ long monologues, they all seem to go on and on for much longer than they need to, or at least be much louder than they need to. Instead of turning them into special moments reserved for climaxes, it seems like Elgar decided that “loud” should be the default dynamic for this piece. A shame, when the few quiet moments have such a hushed magic to them. The influences of Wagner (and especially his Parsifal) are very apparent, but unlike Wagner, Elgar doesn’t seem to fully realise the possibilities for chamber music that a large orchestra gives.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra played with an extraordinarily well-blended sound, from the opening with unison strings and cor anglais to the many passages for the entire orchestra. Although I find Elgar’s orchestration a bit too string-heavy, the string sound was pleasingly burnished, not too bright and polished – a very fitting sound for this piece. The woodwinds were uniformly excellent, but the brass was at times a bit too loud, albeit always controlled, never shrill. Conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ account of Gerontius was on the fast side, but I never felt like the piece was rushed in any way. The tempi all felt natural. The evocation of utter calm at the start of the second part was especially magical.

Even though the solo singing was solidly impressive throughout, the standout performers were the BBC Symphony Chorus. Elgar’s writing for the chorus is hugely varied, spanning from massive, jubilatory choruses praising God to hushed, intimate chorales entirely without orchestral accompaniment, from portraying deliciously evil demons of Purgatory to the angelicals of Heaven. Much like the orchestra, the chorus managed to produce an impressively homogenous sound throughout the performance, both in the (far too few) hushed, quiet moments utilising only the semi-chorus, but also in the many loud parts. The voices were superbly balanced, and the tenors (as is so often the case) didn’t stick out like a sore thumb; the many fugues were a joy to listen to, and the polyphonic textures were remarkably clear, especially given the size of the chorus. If I were to start nitpicking, I would say that there were a couple instances in the first part where the chorus wasn’t completely together at the end of words, leading to the audience being showered in consonants, but it only happened a few times, and did not detract from a superb performance.

As Gerontius, Stuart Skelton showed an impressive dynamic range, especially in the opening monologues, from the smallest pianissimo to great stretches of sustained, very loud singing. While I would have liked to hear more dynamic contrast throughout, it sadly wasn’t something the piece allowed for, instead favouring heroic declamation. He had a wonderful sense of text, and found interest in the monotonously loud passages. Singing the two roles of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony was bass David Soar, stepping in for an indisposed Brindley Sherratt. He had a commanding stage presence and his large, booming voice proved especially effective as the Angel of the Agony. Sarah Connolly’s Angel showed a lot more variation than Skelton’s Gerontius, a part ranging from hushed silence to soaring lyrical passages, a lot due to Elgar’s writing, but also a testament to Connolly’s musicality. Connolly perfectly embodied the angel, with a powerful lower register and a stunningly beautiful top. Her final lullaby to Gerontius was one of the highlights of the evening.

The evening’s venue, the Barbican Centre, does not have the world’s greatest acoustic, and there was a sense of disappointment when the final note swelled, only to be replaced by reverberation-less silence, with no audible trace of the previous two hours. What was an excellent performance sadly fizzled into nothing when the piece just… stopped.

****1