Elgar – Dream of Gerontius – May 2017

Hexham Orpheus Choir and Orchestra with Voices of Hope

Hexham Abbey 13 May 2017

In the programme notes for this concert, Eric Cross draws attention to the many paradoxes of The Dream of Gerontius and its reception.  It seems to be a very English work, a taken-for-granted pillar of the English choral canon.  Yet, as is generally the case with Elgar’s music, The Dream was clearly in debt to German contemporaries, particularly here to Wagner’s operatic writing.  The Dream is thus an expression of Victorian religiosity (Cardinal Newman’s original poem; the musical forces used) and modernism (the use of chromatics).   The result is an oratorio that is, as Cross puts it, ‘close to opera in many places’ (the use of leitmotiv), a religious work that is organised around the journey of an ‘ordinary man’, whose visions are as much fearful as ecstatic.

It is not surprising, then, that the first performance in Birmingham in 1900 was ‘a disaster’ nor that it continues to pose problems for amateur choirs, rooted as they are in English choral tradition, even as it has become a much performed and much loved work.   There’s always a risk that The Dream will seem immensely dreary (I have certainly seen such performances over the years); the words bogged down in literalism, the chromatic textures sludgy, with an overall sense that the music is continuously on the verge of grinding to a halt.

What I realised, listening to the wonderful performance of The Dream by the Hexham Orpheus Choir, is that to make this work emotionally exciting one has to understand its un-Englishness.   Music Director, Mark Edwards, here brilliantly grasped the two main performing issues: texture and rhythm.

Elgar needs choral musical textures for this work that are more inhuman than the familiar soprano/alto/tenor/bass harmonising of church choir singing, which have more of the plangency of plainchant.  The issue here is not so much a matter of the each individual singer’s pitch, as their timing and the precision of the vocal balance. One reason this performance worked so well, then, was because of the integration into the sonic palette of Voices of Hope, who won National Choir of the Year 2016 for good reason. The subtlety of their vocal attack and balance of their vocal sound gave the 75-singer strong Hexham Orpheus Choir an ethereal power that marked every step of the journey of the soul of Gerontius.

Mark Edwards also had a fine command of the rhythmic springiness that is necessary to give The Dream its sense of movement and drama.  This was dependent, of course, on an admirable orchestra, who played with both a lightness of touch and a propulsive confidence that is the opposite of stodginess. Religious music, as has been established by the performing conventions of Bach’s Masses in the last thirty years, does not have to be solemn, even in a religious setting.

On the whole, then, Hexham Abbey was a good setting for this uplifting performance, certainly atmospherically and, more surprisingly, acoustically: the way in which the large choral forces sounded slightly muffled after they had risen to the roof and come down again added to the other-worldly quality of the sound textures.  The Abbey’s acoustic was more problematic for the soloists.  While Paul Grant’s majestically robust bass filled the space, the sweetness and flexibility of Robert Gardiner’s was sometimes lost in the rafters.

The main drawback of the Hexham Abbey as a performance space, though, are its limited sightlines.  While it is not necessary to see every singer or player to enjoy a performance like this, I did miss that sense of awe at watching so many disparate people coming together in a shared human endeavour, enacting, as it were, the individual journey The Dream describes.

But this is to nit-pick.  In the end, all that needs saying is that one knows one has experienced a great performance of The Dream of Gerontius when during the Angel’s final solo, ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul’, time stops and all rational scepticism about the peculiarities of Cardinal Newman’s religiosity is abandoned.  At this moment Anna Harvey’s mezzo voice, plain and totally assured, settled all The Dream’s problems and the choir sounded blissful, measured and, yes, very English—except for the obvious lack of stiff upper lips among singers, players and listeners alike.

Simon Frith  (Tovey Professor of Music, University of Edinburgh)