Saturday, 26 January 2008 performance reviewed by Karl Henning
Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38
Ben Heppner, tenor (Gerontius)
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano (The Angel)
Gerald Finley, bass-baritone (The Priest and The Angel of the Agony)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus (Jn Oliver, conductor)
The Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, guest conductor
“The greatest work of sacred music that we have between the Verdi Requiem and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms,” is Michael Steinberg’s encapsulation of Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Such a remark necessarily shows itself as hyperbole; and immediately suggests the self-imposed boundaries of the concert halls in the West – there is in that assessment little love for, say, Rakhmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers), for starters – but if taken simply as a commendation of the grandeur and quality of Elgar’s achievement, Steinberg’s encomium displays an affection which is not at all misplaced.
Other than in its land of origin, Gerontius is much less widely known than either the Verdi or the Stravinsky. Yet it is a score into which Elgar poured “my own heart’s blood.” The poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman was of a special and personal importance to Elgar (the composer and his wife Alice often read it together). To this listener’s ears, Gerontius is perhaps Elgar’s most successful large-scale score, unfolding in waves of unfailing grace, and many passages of disarming delicacy. At the end of the manuscript, Elgar wrote an inscription from John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies”: This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.
Ben Heppner was in fine voice, and his performance was sweetly modulated to the character of Gerontius throughout. It was necessarily a less dramatic delivery than Ben is oft famed for; but then, Gerontius is neither Wagner’s Tristan nor Berlioz’s Dido. Sarah Connolly sang nicely, yet her voice was perhaps a shade ‘dusky’ for the role of the Angel. From purely sonic considerations, though, Connolly and Heppner made a most agreeable pairing. Gerald Finley did a splendid job, albeit in two very minor roles; his Litany in Part II, as The Angel of the Agony, was steadfast and thrilling. Although serving as ‘the background’, the truly stand-out performers on Saturday were the orchestra, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The Chorus sang with such energy, with such focus and yet such ease, that the oratorio seemed a firm cornerstone of their annual repertory – there was no hint that this was only the second set of performances ever undertaken in Boston, and that a quarter century has passed since the first.
There is a famous scolding in the history of performances of Gerontius. In preparing a performance, Sir John Barbirolli needed to chide the tenors and basses for playing it a bit too nice in the Demons’ Chorus: “You’re not bank clerks on a Sunday outing, you’re souls sizzling in hell.” Yet part of it, I think, is the way Elgar wrote the piece; they do seem ‘tidier’ demons than those whom Berlioz has hectoring Faust in his descent to Hades. This is not at all to wish that Elgar had composed the oratorio at all otherwise than he did, of course; and if Elgar’s demons express themselves partly in expert counterpart, perhaps it is something of a pun upon Gradus ad Parnassum, the classic Fux primer.
In conclusion, let us consider a rhetorical question. It is Sir Colin Davis who conducted this magnificent piece here in Boston both in December of 1982, and today. If it is not Sir Colin Davis who comes back to bring it to us again a third time, who will it be?