The LPO mounted two performances of Elgars The Dream of Gerontius over the weekend, one at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday and one in Salisbury Cathedral the day after with the latter a fundraising event to support the Cathedrals Major Repair Programme. Few would doubt that Gerontius is a masterpiece, and its a work that never fails to bring out the best from its performers, but the difference between a good performance and a great one is ultimately how moved one is as a listener. Whilst this performance had much to commend it, it didnt move me in a way that the LSOs did some years ago with the much missed Richard Hickox and Philip Langridge.
Gerontius has often been described as being Elgars Parsifal and Edward Gardner certainly conducted a performance of Wagnerian weight and stature, with some particularly telling contributions from the brass, but despite the ethereal playing of the string section, Gardners vision of the work remained resolutely earth-bound. Having said that, the orchestral playing was faultless and the choral singing from the London Philharmonic Choir and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge was at turns stirring, full-blooded and wonderfully introspective whether as Demons or the Angelic host they acquitted themselves admirably.
Of the soloists Neal Davies, who was standing in for an indisposed Alastair Miles, made the greatest impression, his warm bass-baritone voice filling the hall with refulgent tone as the Priest in the first half and as the Angel of the Agony in the second. Christine Rice seemed too detached as the Angel and, for someone whose diction is usually faultless, didnt manage to get all her words across although she managed to find the right kind of ecstasy in her voice for Softly and gently towards the close of the work.
Paul Groves has sung Gerontius several times before, most notably on the Hall recording, but didnt seem at all at ease with the high-lying tessitura of the role on this occasion. A lot of the top notes were snatched and there were the odd moments when it looked as though he might run out of steam. One can only assume that he was not feeling too well but had agreed to go on, but if that was the case then the audience should have been told. Not a vintage performance then, but despite its shortcomings one left the Royal Festival Hall in no doubt that Gerontius is a masterpiece, and one was grateful for some brilliant playing and scintillating choral singing.
Further details of Southbank Centre concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk