Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
St Albans Abbey
18th February 2006
A Cathedral setting may seem the most obvious place for Gerontius but experience tends to highlight the many obstacles to be overcome for a smoothly satisfactory performance. Having a very high regard for the Hertfordshire Chorus I was looking forward to their encounter with Gerontius at St Albans and was certainly not disappointed in the first half. David Temple takes a pragmatically no-nonsense approach to the score, the Prelude finely crafted, urgent and forward-moving without any attempt at spurious spirituality. Alan Oke's Gerontius is reserved, cautious, almost hesitant at first, but the voice is clearly focussed and secure at the top. Firmly I believe was most effectively phrased and the passion comes through without any excess emoting. By the time Graeme Danby leads the soul on its journey we are swept up in the nobility and power of the writing. Throughout the chorus had sung with great sensitivity and the orchestral sound - if not always perfectly together - filled the spaces of the building with real authority and presence.
As might have been expected from the first half, David Temple took a brisk approach to the opening of the second and Alan Oke seemed more at ease than in the first. He rose with authority to Take me away and one sensed that he had a clear understanding of the hero's progress both in life and death. Graeme Danby seemed happier with the Angel of the Agony bringing passion as well as clarity of diction.
The Demons' Chorus went very well but I could have wished for more bloom from Praise to the holiest. I suspect it would have sounded fine at the Barbican but the Cathedral ambience needed more time to allow the sound to work its magic. The same was true of the final pages which rounded the score with sensitivity - fine singing and playing from all concerned - but just lacking that subtle sense of awe. The St Albans' organ may appear to be a large instrument but it was totally inaudible except in the quietest of passages - not quite what Elgar wanted!
If I have left Valerie Reid's Angel to the end it is because she was - I suspect - one of the main reasons for the second half failing to catch fire. Though she is able to sing the notes there was never any real sense of involvement with the character or of relationship with Gerontius. The exultation and joy which radiates from the score was never really present and this unfortunately held back much of the rest of the music. It just shows how difficult and subtle Elgar is.
David Temple conducts Crouch End Chorus in Verdi's Requiem at the Barbican on 18 March - now that should be a treat - and the Hertfordshire Chorus sing Bernstein's Chichester Psalms again at the Barbican on 24 May.
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