Elgar’s setting of John Henry Newman’s text The Dream Of Gerontius struggled to make an impact at its barely rehearsed premiere. Indeed Elgar went as far as to say, “providence denies me a decent hearing of my work”, particularly sad as he had also stated “this is the best of me this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory”.
Mark Elder saw to it that justice was done this time, with a performance bordering on the revelatory. Part one, dealing with the death of Gerontius, was solemn and intensely moving, the conductor letting things unfold at an easy pace. But it was when the combined might of the three choirs came into play in part two that the performance really excelled.
The choir were a huge distance from Elder, some right up in the gallery, yet they sang only as one. Their power was harnessed effectively despite their number, with a truly foreboding demon’s chorus one of the many highlights. The most uplifting passage was the climactic “praise to the holiest”, depicting the soul of Gerontius waiting on the threshold of judgement. So good was this section that a number of the audience burst into spontaneous applause.
The soloists were very fine, too. Alice Coote did much to enhance her reputation as a mezzo soprano of great promise in her role as the Angel, dressed appropriately in a long white dress. Paul Groves was an excellent Gerontius, communicating directly with the audience as he sang to all parts of the hall. When he sang, “I go before my judge”, the tension between him and the orchestra was tangible. The bass Matthew Best gave a moving absolution of the soul of Gerontius to end the first half, the resonance of his voice projecting right to the back.
The Halle were on top form. Gerontius has some tricky string figuration and syncopations, and the cellos launched into the central fugue of the Demons’ chorus with aplomb, not looking back for a second. The blinding flash of light, where we see a brief glimpse of God, made a stunning impact, and set many a heart pounding in the audience.
It was a shame to have an interval after part one, so rapt were we all in concentration, and it took a little while to regain the work’s impetus in the second part. Once Elder had reeled us in again there was no turning back, as we joined Groves on his spiritual journey to deliverance.
The sound was awesome – six hundred or so performers creating a mighty wall of it – and when Elder reached the end, mopping his brow, he stood for a while in reverent silence, even as the applause began. Finally he relaxed, and gave a nod of satisfaction. It was a gesture he was more than entitled to make.