Certain images of Edward Elgar appear to be too heavily ingrained in our national consciousness ever to be shaken off. He has now been entombed as an establishment figure, a privilege for which he has the Last Night of the Proms to thank. Even works such as the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto that are less obviously redolent of patriotic bombast can be heard as expressive vehicles for Edwardian imperialism. Perhaps for good reason, the portrait of Elgar as a “grand old man” of English culture might now be distasteful to us, and in recent years there have been attempts to rescue the man from the myth. The 2010 BBC documentary Elgar: The Man Behind the Mask uncovered manifold facets of the composer’s character: rather than a pompous artist with aristocratic pretensions, we are encouraged to see both Elgar and his music as unsettled and at odds with the imperialist confidence of Edwardian society.

Edward Elgar, photographed in 1931 by Herbert Lambert
Edward Elgar, photographed in 1931 by Herbert Lambert

No better work could have been chosen to ride these waves of thought than The Dream of Gerontius (1900). Composed for the Birmingham Festival, Elgar set the text of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poetic narrative, which traces the journey of a dying man through sickness, fear and acceptance of purgatory. As a Roman Catholic in an Anglican British community, this was a bold choice of subject matter: while the setting of other texts by Cardinal Newman had not prompted objection from the Church of England, Elgar’s refusal to dispense with the Catholic doctrine of purgatory earned this work textual censorship. Either by irony or serendipity, Adrian Partington’s Saturday performance of the uncensored Gerontius at St John’s Smith Square was in aid of the Three Choirs Festival: the very festival for which, back in 1902, the text had been expurgated.

In keeping with a long-standing British tradition of amateur music-making, Saturday’s ensemble consisted of a mixture of invited professionals, music college students, and an all-inclusive “Come and Sing” Choir. With only one rehearsal to put everything together this concert faintly echoed the haphazard Birmingham Festival première of 1900. Both performances were marred by unavoidable mistakes, since it is not possible to capture the richness of Elgar’s complex and technically demanding work in such a short space of time. However, it was precisely this precarious world of performance that Elgar knew and understood, as some of his most significant gramophone recordings attest.

The decision to challenge the choir’s conventional all-black dress code in this performance was certainly inventive. However, clad in colourful blouses, the chorus looked rather more as if they had been dressed as extras for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel than to enact a musical journey towards religious enlightenment. Part 1 commenced with the brooding orchestral prelude that showcases the main motifs of the composition in the manner of Wagner. The music is laced throughout with fragile chromaticism, something that sets this religious work apart from the righteously diatonic offerings of Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin’s portrayal of Gerontius was an accomplished one. His lucid delivery and capacity to sail across melismas were attractive, although one wished that he would break out of the choir stalls to voice Gerontius’ fear of death more robustly. Quoted in the programme, correspondence between Elgar and his editor August Jaeger documents an argument over the representation of this character in which Elgar made his intentions clear: “I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us... Therefore I’ve not filled his part with Church tunes and rubbish but a... romantic, remembered worldliness, so to speak”. Flitting between recitative, arioso, and fugal forms, Elgar maps the experience of the man Gerontius as, in full knowledge of his life leaving him, he prepares to face his uncertain fate. The chorus offer intercessions and a Priest (sung rather unremarkably by bass Oliver Dunn) blesses the impending journey of his soul.

Before Part 2 it was necessary for an energetic member of the choir to conduct the raffle draw from the conductor’s podium. In England, it seems that we are unable to conceive of a choral concert without some form of added entertainment, and so it came to pass that the audience were subjected to their own purgatorial “taster session”. Eventually we were granted relief from this exercise and the concert proceeded. With a marked change in atmosphere, Gerontius’ soul now marvels at his wondrous surroundings. The Angel (Kitty Whately, mezzo soprano) is overjoyed at the task of accompanying him. Whately’s performance added grace to the production as a whole and allowed this second half to flower. Amongst Elgar’s strange musical inflections were exposed staccato notes plucked from the lower registers of the harps, and the half-spoken jeering of fallen angels. After encountering the Angel of the Agony (Oliver Dunn), Gerontius is now prepared to stand before God for judgement. This is completed during a magnificent orchestral outburst, and he is free to join the souls in purgatory.

The performance suffered from a few common ailments: rippling consonants across the chorus, some discrepancy of tuning, and players near the audience gaping at complicated passages on the score in wondrous oblivion. However, emotional swells were admirably managed by Partington, and he effectively harnessed the sheer exhilaration felt by those participating into a compelling rendition.

***11