Have you been naughty or nice? Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius presents the consequences.
Elgar was notoriously fussy about his dynamic and tempo markings – and understandably so, as the second-by-second variations in speed and volume are the transmission system to the music’s engine. And while the soloists in The Dream of Gerontius might be admired for the quality of their voices, or their engagement with the deeply devotional text, it’s the interest of the soundscapes provided by the orchestra and chorus that are the real acid test of a good performance. Particularly, in this regard, is the ‘Praise to the Holiest’ section. It’s a good twelve minutes long, and like a bout of cross-country skiing, it’s full of little dips and peaks as well as flatter stretches; but it needs drive, concentration and mutability if its long journey to the final massive fortissimo is not to flag.
There were no worries about this on Wednesday evening, though, as from the opening of the orchestral Prelude (with its rapidly shifting ‘in tonight’s programme’ medley of themes) Edward Gardner demonstrated a full understanding of Elgar’s requirements, to which he brought his own operatic awareness of texture and mood, transmitting all this to the London Philharmonic Orchestra with relaxed yet explicit control; they responded in kind with some exquisite shifts of timbre, including subtle horn lines, glowing brass underlay, lovingly realised passage of classic Elgar mellow strings and the occasional low pedal note from the organ that was felt rather than heard.
This intelligence was maintained throughout the piece, such that Gerontius’s journey from end of life to purgatory was, despite Henry Newman’s occasionally overly dogmatic text, no trudge, but a carefully curated tour of some of Elgar’s best musical utterances.
“…from the opening of the orchestral Prelude… Edward Gardner demonstrated a full understanding of Elgar’s requirements…”
As for the choral passages from London Philharmonic Choir and Hallé Choir, they were magnificent. ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was a model performance of restraint and release – from the light, silvery entry of the sopranos to the full blast of the final ‘ways!’. There are an awful lot of words in this, but never did they seem either gabbled or recited by rote. But then, it was clear that we were listening to a top-notch chorus from their very first pianissimissimo entry in the earlier ‘Kyrie eleison’, and their handling of the fiendishly difficult demons’ chorus, which was delivered with casual exactitude. Perhaps the only cavil around the choral presentation was with this latter section: it could have been nastier. Some performances are given a creaky nasal vocal tone for the ‘ha-ha’s, and while it might be a little comedic, it saves Newman’s fumbling attempts at portraying viciousness from sounding awkwardly pompous.
Allan Clayton’s Gerontius was a masterpiece. It’s a difficult role to get right, as, while Elgar’s Wagnerian influences are obvious, and a touch of the ‘Helden’ is demanded in places, it requires mostly a decidedly English lyric voice for its effect. Clayton breezed these transitions with his usual brilliance – his floated ‘Novissima hora est’ was as moving as his agonised ‘Take me away’. Indeed, it wasn’t until his voice picked up a shinier edge for the second half, you realised that he had been deliberately covering his tone for the dying Gerontius.
Jamie Barton brought her gloriously creamy voice to the Angel role to give us some moments of sheer delight – her final ‘Softly and gently’ released the tears as it should, and her earlier exultant ‘Alleluia’ rang the rafters, demonstrating that her extraordinarily rich vocal tone is consistent from the lowest chest notes to the very top of her range. Perhaps it was the peculiarities of the Albert Hall’s acoustic, but there were moments where she seemed slightly swamped by the orchestra, and perhaps an extra push on the gas pedal would have been welcome.
James Platt’s accounts of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony were by and large excellent (‘Proficiscere anima Christiana’ was given all the command it needed). He has a good edge and colour to his voice, but one felt that a little more sonority and a little less vibrato would have served him better.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.