sat 21/07/2018

The Dream of Gerontius, RSNO, Oundjian, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

The Dream of Gerontius, RSNO, Oundjian, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Dream of Gerontius, RSNO, Oundjian, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Big-bottomed Elgar masterpiece just falls short of splendour

Sarah Connolly: a perfect Angel

To close its 2014-15 season the Royal Scottish National Orchestra chose the choral masterpiece that Elgar preferred not to call an oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius. Performances in Scotland are rare, whether this is because of Presbyterian unease with Catholic sentiment, or the unfashionable nature of big-bottomed Anglican choral textures, it is difficult to say. North of the border we are more likely to turn to Brahms’ German Requiem for spiritual consolation. That said, the munificent Gerontius fits the Usher Hall like a glove; the hall was built 10 years after the premiere and with its heavy mahogany woodwork and tub-thumping organ could easily have been designed specifically with this quintessentially Edwardian work in mind.

Under its Music Director Peter Oundjian (pictured below: in rehearsal at the Usher Hall by Mark Hamilton), the RSNO pulled off a performance with some wonderful moments, but the whole was never quite the sum of its parts. To begin at the beginning, the orchestral Prelude was exquisite, demonstrating Oundjian’s total control of the orchestra. He chose a higher podium than usual, to make sure that none of his forces could escape his gaze by hiding behind a music stand. More Wagner than Elgar, the searching melodic line gradually accumulated harmonic warmth and finally erupted in an episode of pure Elgarian pomp, bass drum rumbling and the organist plumbing the depths with the 32ft pedal stops – loyal Edinburghers are still thrilled to hear this splendid Norman and Beard instrument, restored in 2002 after decades of inaction.

Toby Spence’s Gerontius entered the deathbed scene with a clear sense of line and excellent diction, but slightly lacking the weight and openness to match the opulent orchestral sound. There seemed to be something missing but it wasn’t until the baritone Alan Opie rose to his feet with the stirring "Proficiscere", that we realised what it was, for here was a voice with the combination of heft and dignity that this music requires.

Peter OundjianIt is well recorded that the 1900 Birmingham premiere of Gerontius was plagued by disaster, not least the failure of the amateur chorus to get to grips with the score under a new chorus master. History repeats itself. Gregory Batsleer was appointed to direct the RSNO Chorus earlier this year and he has yet to achieve the tightly knit musical coherence that is so in evidence in the rival Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, which he has led for the last six years. Two weeks ago, in the same hall, the smaller chorus packed a bigger punch in Haydn’s The Creation. Try as they mightand there was much evidence of keen, earnest attention to the conductor’s guiding baton – the larger RSNO Chorus sounded old-fashioned and distinctly woolly round the edges. The concert programme (maybe unwisely) flags up the large number of choristers who have been with the chorus for 20 years or more.

There is a substantial role for the chorus in Gerontius, as Assistants to the Priest, Demons, and Angelicals, and it was by no means all bad. For the fiddly bits – the many fugal passages, and those for semi-chorus – you could see the look of panic in the chorus ranks. Any choral singer knows the feeling: “We’ll be OK as long as the Demons fugue holds together...” But for the great chorus "Praise to the Holiest in the Height" Oundjian built a hugely satisfying surge of sound – the great weight of organ, drums, chorus and orchestra is often disparaged as pure Anglican cowpat but it would be kinder to call it a cathedral of musical texture.

I leave the best to last: the appearance after the interval of Sarah Connolly as the angel guiding the soul of Gerontius to God’s judgement. In her lower reaches, Connolly sounds uncannily like Janet Baker, which was rather wonderful, but with a slightly outré hairstyle she looked for all the world like a rather taller Delia Smith, doyenne of the firm-bottomed saucepan. The combination was clearly riveting to Toby Spence, who gazed at her throughout with a mixture of admiration and astonishment, his own voice picking up some bloom and heft in the process. Connolly, for her part, seemed to find inspiration somewhere around seat B52 in the Grand Circle, on which she fixed her gaze and to which she sang with true angelic radiance. This was a performance full of depth and even a sly sense of humour, utterly in keeping with both Gerontius’s 19th-century vision and our own rather more knowing appreciation of Elgar’s deeply rooted faith.

Comments

And your point about the lack of wisdom in crediting members of the chorus with long service is?? A performance this weekend was received to great acclaim and the award winning choir lists 21 members with 20 years' service, 7 with 30 years' service, 6 with 40 years' service and 1 with 50 years' service. At the orchestral rehearsal, one 20 year and four 40 years' service awards were presented.

Correction - three 40 years' service awards were presented. And I would add that all members are vocally re-assessed every two years.

I read this review and was left with an urgent need to know about Toby Spence's hairstyle! No, of course I wasn't, as it really makes no difference to his musical performance. I'm left with the uneasy feeling that there remains a petty culture of sexism amongst certain critics that makes them feel entitled to comment on the appearance of female musicians. It really is SO last century. That Mr Lambton felt compelled to compare Ms Connolly to a TV chef perhaps says more about him than her. In keeping with the culinary theme, therefore, I think I'll read his future reviews with an appropriately sized pinch of salt.

Your silence is deafening Mr Lambton.

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