Elgar’s epic choral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius is powerfully religious, using the text of Cardinal Newman’s poetry-prose, a large orchestra, choir and three soloists to explore the final journey of an old man approaching death, and reawakening as a soul preparing for judgement. It is also a universal tale, an attempt to reconcile the meaning of life. And it is a luxuriant musical journey in a late-Romantic post-Wagnerian style, full of recurring themes, and a rich variety of orchestral and choral colours.
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis clearly had a vision for the whole work which he has known and loved since he was a teenager. From the very soft opening perfect unison playing of the lower strings and wind this was a performance with direction. The gradual expansion to include upper strings and harps leading to the first forte and hints of restlessness in the sleeping troubled old man, the tossing and turning with this increasing turbulence were directed with fluidity, and not a hint of stodginess. This long orchestral prelude hints at many of the musical ideas that will unfold as the journey progresses.
Tenor Stuart Skelton as the dying Gerontius opened his prayer at a barely audible pianissimo, a feature of the performance which used every dynamic from a whisper to all guns blazing in solos, orchestral playing and choruses. Skelton’s vocal quality was thrilling across the range in this huge and demanding role, though his delivery of the text was not quite as convincing as his beautiful voice, missing the opportunity to maximise the emotional impact.
The 100-voice Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus was joined by the 24-voice Choir of Trinity College, Melbourne, who sang the semi-chorus. The youthful purity of the Trinity Choir provided some sublime singing, and contrasted effectively with the more mature tone colour of the larger group, who also sang with great dynamic range, excellent articulation of text and precision of phrasing.
Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg took on the demanding role of the Priest in Part One, sending forth Gerontius from his earthly suffering to the journey ahead. This short but sustained and exposed solo highlighted his rich and powerful voice, and as the choirs joined, the send-off was magnificent.
Part Two began even more softly than the opening, with muted strings creating the otherworldly atmosphere for the Soul of Gerontius to awake, refreshed. English mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers had joined the others on stage after the interval, and from the orchestral opening, even seated on stage, she was present in the drama that was unfolding. As the Angel, she became guide to the Soul [and when I’m in that position, she’s the Angel I’d like to have]! Her vocal and physical presence was calm and authoritative, reassuring and affirming. The text came to life, with her beautiful tone across the wide range, superb musical line and clear articulation.
The brass and percussion players of the MSO had their biggest moments here, as the day of judgement approached. Excellent precision playing gave these moments an extra edge. Some of the most difficult chorus work came here too with fugal entries, and menacing demonic laughter while the rest of the orchestra was also heavily engaged in counter ideas. All this was coordinated by Sir Andrew Davis who had everything under control.
As the depths are plumbed, with the contra bassoon descending with all the Demons, the Soul asks the Angel if he will see his Master. The Angel lets him know that he shall see his Lord for one moment. This heart of the work leads to the Choir of Angelicals singing Praise to the Holiest as the Soul and the Angel approach judgement. Some of the evening’s most effective work came here. Chorus, solos and orchestra are woven together, and the combined forces produced some incredibly spine-tingling music.
Nathan Berg appeared now as the Angel of Agony, again fulfilling the role with appropriate gravitas. Skelton’s Soul appeared before his Judge, his vocal quality still resonant and beautiful at the end of this long and demanding role. Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be had musical shape but I again wanted more from the text to really tear at the heart-strings.
Wyn-Rogers’ final farewell Softly and Gently (as she lovingly places the soul into the water to carry him forth) was breathtakingly beautiful.
Soloists, MSO Chorus (and chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones), The Choir of Trinity College, Melbourne (and director Christopher Watson), Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (concertmaster Sophie Rowell) and conductor Sir Andrew Davis presented a superb Dream, and it was obviously thoroughly appreciated by the audience at Hamer Hall, who gave all participants a wonderful ovation. A friend observed afterwards, “it makes you want to return to religion”.