The London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Elgar’s choral masterpiece was a more than fitting tribute to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
As a devout atheist, The Dream of Gerontius usually reviles me with its overblown self-righteous Catholicism and genuflection to all things Papist. Normally I’d be found choking on the whiff of incense that pervades each bar and dismissing the whole as overblown Edwardian pomposity.
Why then was I so moved by the performance at the Barbican on Sunday night?
It’s hard to pinpoint, but perhaps this was the first time that I had ever experienced Gerontius in such a spiritually transcendent performance. This was music making of the highest order, even by the LSO’s lofty standards of late, and under the impassioned baton of Richard Hickox (who conducted the work from memory) the whole experience was more a communal act of devotion than a Sunday night performance of the oratorio.
The orchestra playing was quite outstanding and the contribution of the chorus, whether as demons or angels, was faultless. Indeed I don’t mind admitting that the climax to Praise to the Holiest in the Height brought a tear to my eye. Music making of this standard is rare and for me it had a loftiness reminiscent of Parsifal – a work to which Gerontius is closely related.
Unfortunately Philip Langridge in the title role was still recovering from ‘flu, so understandably was below his usual meticulous standard (raspy in the lower-lying passages, and effortful in the others) but even so, one could admire his commitment and interpretation, even if his voice did not always do what it was asked to.
Peter Coleman-Wright showed off his voluminous baritone to great effect in his all too brief contributions, but the most poised, reverential and golden-toned singing of the evening came from the Swedish alto, Anna Larsson, as the Angel. Having heard her on disc (an incomparable soloist in Claudio Abbado‘s superlative recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony), I expected her to deliver a memorable performance. However, nothing prepared me for her sublime reading of this glorious role. She looked stunning (she was by far the tallest soloist on the platform) and her singing was moving beyond words. I don’t think I’ve heard a more convincing interpretation of this role since Dame Janet Baker. And praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
I haven’t found God – but I’m now convinced that The Dream of Gerontius is a masterpiece. Hallelujah!