It’s an unusual situation when both the conductor and the tenor have pulled out of a performance of The Dream of Gerontius but when one trades Andris Nelsons for Edward Gardner and Toby Spence for Robert Murray the issue can be overcome.
Haven’t heard the CBSO for some time and was impressed with the dark sound of their playing. For anyone used to the luminous string playing of the LSO or the New York Philharmonic, this orchestra is a different beast. It has almost a Germanic depth but with a much more earthy feel. A sound very appropriate for what is for English music the equivalent to an oratorio.
The orchestra played with vibrancy and concentration under a very energetic Gardner. All three soloists gave a convincing portrayal and I must single out Sarah Connolly who despite the onset of bronchitis she did not cancel. Seemingly we are always happy to bash artists for not showing but very rarely we applaud the majority of hard working musicians that show up for work despite health problems. She had a bit of a raw edge to her delivery to start off with, but soon settled to the creamy full throated sound we know too well. Her Alleluia rang across the auditorium, the Angel that Elgar wanted had arrived. Robert Murray offered some very sensitive singing that was very touching. His dying Gerontius was a terrified mortal awaiting judgement, the liberated soul turned into a different beast altogether a much lighter, searching personage showed through. His final descent into the purgatory was portrayed as a devastating blow. James Rutherford added the much needed gravitas and darkness and offered solid grounding to the ethereal music. The choir was exceptional in their tonal variety from the heavenly sounds of the opening to the terrifying chorus of the demons flanking the descriptions of the Angel guiding the soul of Gerontius.
The slightly bizarre god fearing tendencies of the text are not maybe the greatest poetry to set to music, but Elgar’s treatment is an interesting solution to a very old problem. The vitality of the some of the music is unlike a lot of his more routine work and when performed with as much panache as from the forces of the CBSO it becomes much easier to ignore any textual failings.
PS Sarah Connolly is scheduled to perform in another Gerontius on 26 January 2013 with the London Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Festival Hall in London.