South Bank Centre, London
6th October 2004
The main point of interest in this concert was the first London performance since 1921 of Elgar's With Proud Thanksgiving. A setting of Laurence Binyon's poem, it has a very chequered history and in the event was not used for the unveiling of the Whitehall cenotaph in 1920. A single appearance at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and then it disappeared into obscurity. Surprising, when one comes to hear it, as, though short, it is a compelling setting, noble and affecting without ever being sanctimonious. The familiar They shall grow not old is set within the context of both mourning and thanksgiving - a tricky undertaking at the best of times and one for which Elgar shows enormous subtlety.
The mixed choral force - drawn from a large number of well-known choirs - had obviously spent a good deal of time rehearsing the work and it was given with care and precision under Martyn Brabbins.
The same was unfortunately not equally true of The Dream of Gerontius which made up the bulk of the evening. No problem with the soloists. David Rendall cuts an heroic figure as Gerontius and the Wagnerian strength and power carries all before it. Take me away and similar high lying passages were as moving as they were accurate. He was finely matched by the equally Wagnerian tones of Matthew Best as the Priest / Angel. Diana Montague may not be an obvious choice for the Angel but she had no difficulty at all with the range and brought great beauty to Softly and gently.
The City of London Sinfonia were on fine form if rather raw at times - often to good effect. The mixed choir did their best but seemed under-rehearsed and were not helped by Martyn Brabbins' conducting. Too often his beat lacked edge and frequent momentary lapses occurred for both choir and soloists where he failed to bring them in cleanly. This was a pity. What could have been a splendid performance became simply a good one when the quality of the parts was not brought together with aplomb or musical incisiveness.
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