Hamer Hall, Melbourne
March 10, 2018 at 2pm

The Dream of Gerontius has come a long way since its first disastrous performance in Birmingham on October 3, 1900. Elgar’s masterly setting of lines from the poem by John Henry Newman provoked hostility and derision on two main counts. Firstly, the subject matter was considered far too Roman Catholic with its mentions of purgatory; and secondly, the musical idiom was so unlike anything that performers had previously encountered, especially in standard oratorios with their succession of set pieces.

It is not surprising, however, that the work soon became popular in Germany, where it had no less a champion that Richard Strauss. Contemporary trends in German music had deeply influenced Elgar, especially the work of Wagner. Elgar heard Parsifal twice at Bayreuth in 1892 and commentators have noted the similarities between the two works.

Nearly 120 years later Gerontius is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece and several of Newman’s texts (“Praise to the Holiest” and “Firmly I believe and truly”) have become popular hymns. Once dismissed as a work “reeking of incense,” Elgar’s oratorio now enjoys a much wider appeal because it deals directly and disarmingly with that most universal of subjects – human mortality. An old man falls asleep and dreams of the afterlife, and in so doing confronts his fears and aspires to lasting happiness. Elgar colours this cathartic journey with astounding creativity and insight.

Sir Andrew Davis (no stranger to this work, with numerous performances and a Chandos recording under his belt) deeply understands this basic construct. In this latest fine account with the Melbourne Symphony there is a strong sense that most of the detail has been honed in rehearsal so that Davis can concentrate on the broad sweep of Elgar’s hyper-romantic vision. In particular, the spatial elements of the work with its comings and goings into heaven, earth and purgatory were effectively delineated, aided by finely shaded dynamics. Davis is also alert to the composer’s skilful combination and recycling of themes throughout.

From the opening prelude it was clear that the orchestra was on top form; clear and cohesive, attending intently to the shaping of each and every phrase. Amongst the many delights were cameos by Christopher Moore (viola) and David Berlin (cello), not to mention the exquisitely hushed string playing in the Part II prelude. Climaxes and their build-ups were all thrilling and well prepared.

What a pity to know that such an uplifting performance could have been even more powerful had Hamer Hall been possessed of a pipe organ – an instrument, which plays a crucial part in Elgar’s score, particularly in “Praise to the Holiest” and in that climactic moment when Gerontius is granted a glimpse of God. The electronic appliance used by the orchestra is no substitute for the real thing, emitting a dull rumble for time to time, despite the best efforts of the organist, Calvin Bowman. It’s at moments like these one has to bemoan the scandalous lack of vision of those charged with refurbishing the venue some years ago. One can only wonder at what Davis (an organist himself in his earlier career) thinks of this state of affairs.

Stuart Skelton was an inspired choice for the role of Gerontius; his perfectly judged delivery was backed up with fine attention to textual detail. The stamina he has acquired in his Wagnerian career equipped him well, most notably in the climax of the work. Skelton’s “Take me away!” was sung with such genuine and unforgettable passion that it took him a moment to find his subsequent place in the score (not that he really needed it). Also memorable were his many pianissimo entries tinged with deep emotion.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers has sung and recorded the role of the angel many times and brings genuine warmth and empathy to her part, supported by exemplary diction. While her luscious, expressive lower register is a delight, there was on this occasion a slight suggestion of strain when negotiating the upper reaches of Elgar’s wide-ranging writing. This however, did not detract from her overall sense of calm and conviction, most tellingly conveyed in the famous “Angel’s Farewell” at the work’s end.

Canadian bass-baritone, Nathan Berg sang the dual role of the priest and the angel of agony with an impressive heft of vocal tone, growing in dramatic stature as the music progressed. My own preference would have been for an even more dramatic delivery of the “Proficiscere” that concludes Part I.

The combined forces of the MSO Chorus and Trinity College Choir invested the sometimes difficult score with admirable energy and clarity. Moments of occasional tentativeness were soon forgotten amidst the glorious brilliance of “Praise to the Holiest” or the moving tenderness of the closing “Lord, thou hast been our refuge”. The devilish Demons’ Chorus was well done and given plenty of colour, including some final nasal “ha ha”s.

Once again, Elgar’s life-affirming music has worked its spell on Melbourne audiences. It has taken a decade for the MSO to revive Gerontius. Here’s hoping its next appearance will be a lot sooner!