While it’s now a staple of the choral repertoire, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – setting poetry by John Henry Newman – wasn’t an immediate success at its premiere as part of the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in 1900. A few factors were at play: insufficient rehearsal, an intransigent chorus master, what were then still quite radical post-Wagnerian harmonies and the work’s overt Catholicism all contributed to a lacklustre reception. “Providence denies me a decent hearing of my work: and so I submit,” he wrote to his friend August Jaeger. “I always said God was against art and I still believe it.”
The performance of Elgar’s oratorio by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs on Thursday night, however, was a “decent hearing” indeed. Under the baton of Music Director Brett Weymark who was joined by soloists Jacqueline Dark, Andrew Goodwin and José Carbó as well as the Sydney Youth Orchestra (bolstered by members of the Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra) the choir gave a fine account of the story, which follows the journey of an aged Gerontius through death and finally to purgatory.
The orchestra put in a sterling performance, from the richly-scored opening orchestral Prelude, which outlines the leitmotifs – ideas of prayer, judgment and despair woven into the music – to the work’s dramatic climax. The dark clarinets, bassoons and violas created a sombre death-bed mood in the opening, the strings were generally clean and precise throughout and the horns conjured a warm patina around the orchestral sound.
The music centres around the character of Gerontius, sung with a burnished, ringing tenor by Andrew Goodwin, who traced a convincing arc from the protagonist’s death-bed (prayer and fear hand-in-hand) to his otherworldly lightness in the oratorio’s Part II, and finally a reverent acceptance of his fate, tinged with the hope of redemption. Goodwin’s diction was immaculate and his tone bright and penetrating. His cry, “Take me away and in the lowest deep/There let me be” – following his glimpse of God – burst with passion before navigating a beautifully sculpted descent into Purgatory.
Alongside Goodwin was baritone José Carbó first as the priest, ushering Gerontius into the afterlife with full-toned authority and finally as the Angel of Agony (the angel present at Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane), whose dramatic aria, opening against ominous trombones, is a plea on behalf of the souls in Purgatory.
Jacqueline Dark rounded out the trio of soloists as the Angel. As critic and musicologist Michael Steinberg put it, “the part of the Angel wants a soothing beauty of timbre” – and this is exactly what the mezzo-soprano brought to the table with an understated yet gorgeous shepherding of Gerontius through the afterlife, Dark’s Alleluia’s rising up to hint at greater power held in reserve.
The semi-chorus, made up of members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ Symphony Chorus, perched above the main throng, providing an ethereal colour to the Choir of Angelicas’s songs of praise. The main chorus – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ large Festival Chorus – delivered an expansive sound with an other-worldly shine to it. While the clarity of the words was lost in the faster, musically dense Low-born clods of brute earth, sung by the demons – and notoriously challenging to pull off effectively – the raw energy and power from choir and orchestra was scintillating and the combined might of choir and orchestra in the blazing climaxes were arresting.
Elgar may have lost faith in church and afterlife by the time he was on his own death bed, but it hasn’t stopped his Dream of Gerontius from finding a hallowed place in the choral tradition. It is still a powerful musical and spiritual journey, given a heavenly accounting by Weymark and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs The Dream of Gerontius at the Sydney Opera House October 21.