tue 25/06/2024

The Dream of Gerontius, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

The Dream of Gerontius, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican

The Dream of Gerontius, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, Barbican

Stunning performance of Elgar's flawed oratorio

The first class CBSO and CBSO Chorus in Symphony Hall

It's one of the great perversities of modern cultural life that orchestras from America and Venezuela visit London more often than those from Birmingham or Manchester. A perversity and a shame, as last night's exceptional performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and CBSO Chorus on a rare visit to the Barbican showed.

Not even the cancellation of their chief conductor Andris Nelsons (owing to a family illness) or Toby Spence was able to derail things. The essentials were simply too good. There's nothing quite like a first-class English orchestra and chorus performing English music they love. The opening investigation of orchestral and choral murk, as troubled Gerontius enters the final phase of his life and seeks solace from the heavens, was chilling. The dark massy tread, which can in the wrong hands backslide into lumbering, became charged with thundery power under Edward Gardner's watch. A charge that was present too in the booming exclamations of the CBSO Chorus and the incredible hushed utterances of its chamber choir silo. I'd hear this lot sing my car manual. 

The whole second part strikes me as a fundamentally unconvincing portrait of another world

The soloists weren't to be outdone. His eyes closed, his stance anxious, tenor Robert Murray delivered an impressive portrait of Gerontius, capturing that sense of inner turmoil beautifully. He too had an gob-smacking sotto voce to wow us with, one that troublingly signalling the expiry of his soul. Where was the Lord? He seemed to be leaving it all a little late. Enter James Rutherford. A more convincing guardian of Heaven, I cannot imagine. Nice to have a bit of stentorian certainty after all that metaphysical drifting. 

But here, at the end of part one, my night effectively ended. I cannot, will not and do not buy the second part of Gerontius. There's way too much religious hot air for my liking. And the music does nothing to evoke the liminal world we are supposedly in. From the contrived and cack-handed attempt at colour in the Devil's chorus, to the offensively aggressive certainties of the chorus of angels, the whole thing strikes me as a fundamentally unconvincing portrait of another world. The dreamy part, it seems to me, came in the shifting sands of the first half. 

Neither was I much convinced by Sarah Connolly's home-counties interpretation of the Angel. Too many rolled rs. Too much pomposity. Too much poshness. She undoubtedly sings the part well. Her final words was almost moving. And she deserves huge credit for struggling on in spite of battling, she informed us on Twitter earlier today, from the onset of bronchitis. That this was barely noticeable is a testament to her vocal abilities. But can we please calm down our vowels? And can we also replace the text for the second half with something a little more intelligible and moving? Like a car manual.


I can't begin to imagine how anyone who attended this concert could write about it like this. You obviously have no liking for Gerontius so it's a shame no-one more open-minded wrote the review. My main problem though, is the drivel you have written about Sarah Connolly. She was obviously not well yet she sang the angel with such warmth and tenderness. How can you call such beauty "pomposity"? I believed in her promise to come and wake Gerontius. I found the whole concert wonderful and very moving. I presume you weren't one of the premature clappers. I wasn't either because I was still crying at the end.mtMznwg

There is an easy answer to the first paragraph. Why should any orchestra from the rest of the UK want to appear at any of the London Concert Halls. For the CBSO in Symphony Hall migrating to the Barbican is like changing from a Rolls Royce to an new Lada & for the Royal Festival Hall, a clapped out Lada. As for the foreign orchestras visiting London rather than Symphony Hall then more fool them they should know better!! Londoners are just jealous of Symphony Hall & most are too ashamed to admit it.

I agree the second half is not easy to understand if you are not a Catholic - which I am not, but I have been studying Dante recently, so I am aware of the importance of the concept of Purgatory in Catholic thought...this is what happens to Gerontius,he has to spend time in Purgatory. I don't actually think much of Cardinal Newman as a poet, to be honest, but I think Elgar gives it his best shot - in other words, yes, he could have done wonders with a better text. I also thought Sarah Connolly's portrayal of the Angel was very lyrical and moving - I knew she had been ill, but it did not affect her performance. Actually some of us got involved in a lengthy discussion afterwards about the fact that we don't agree with the Catholic theology, and think Cardinal Newman was a rubbish poet, but Elgar's music manages to transcend this,

How I agree with Tim Walton - Birmingham's Symphony Hall is magnificent, as is the CBSO with its Chorus. And the performance of Gerontius I heard in last Thursday's concert (also live on radio 3) was truly wonderful.

But at the top you write, 'Stunning performance'!!

I'm having the same problem singing Dream of Gerontius. In our choral society, our musical director is getting frustrated with the sopranos for being out of character sometimes e.g. singing "a bundle of bones" in an inappropriately angelic way. So I wrote out the soprano libretto in modern English, a bit like a car manual - this helped me "get" the characters and story, and maybe it will help you.... I hope it doesn't offend anyone. Part I Assistants, addressing God: Spare him from Hell, Lord. Please be kind and please can you disregard his past sins - he’s now dying, and yes, he has been quite self-absorbed. Surely you can rescue him from Hell and its fire and the Devil. Can’t you just rescue him straight away? Look at it this way: he’s been a firm believer - in Jesus. So why not save him from Hell? OK, so he’s sinned a little in the past but then again, he really is your follower. ... Please rescue him! - this is such classically difficult time, the moment of death, and remember - you alone have got that power! Assistants, addressing Gerontius: Go take your place in Heaven with the angels! You are a follower of Jesus and the Holy spirits. Go straight up, peaceably, to Heaven and find some nice Sion-esque place to settle! Part II Demons, addressing each other [Other parts sing, “The **** think they can act like gods”] ... gods!! Like they think they can be re-born, and they reckon they can trade in their piffling little “good deeds”. Some people think they can be reborn as gods when there are real deities up there with their real light shows. Well, we know you’re just going to fall at the first hurdle, there is NO WAY anything's gonna happen except you'll be chucked out, and when you’ve been forcibly ejected, the bouncers’ll be pretty damned pleased they didn’t let someone bribe their way in with prayers and brown nosing. ...and look, we have to think through the issues ourselves – they can’t just come up here and say they're a saint, but really they’s just a load of old bones,, LOL That’s just cowardly to make out like a bundle of bones is a saint. Common sense says it's just bribery, LOL Angelicals, to everyone, then to God: No, he’s not committed any really sleazy deeds, when the chips were down, he did not do anything that bad, he does deserve to come right up into heaven. In fact he deserves the highest praise. He can easily make a good case for coming to Heaven. Look - he’s a real hero just like Adam - he never gave way to temptation. Surely you, God would see that? – after all, you’re so wise and kind. Your judgement is vastly superior to humans, and surely you can see how tough it is to be human, with all our animalistic instincts. But then again, Jesus has – through his suffering on the cross - taught so many of us to overcome our instincts and to have some higher aspirations.... We beg you, you’re the greatest, deepest, kindest, most holy and loving ... we cannot praise you enough... so you see: we are TOTALLY confident in you! Earthlings to God: Yes, please can you have a bit of mercy and spare him the fate of going to Hell? Angelicals to God: We just can’t praise you enough! Amen. WE ARE LEFT ASSUMING THAT GERONTIUS WENT TO HEAVEN AND WAS NOT CHUCKED OUT

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