Wednesday, August 31, 2022
Royal Albert Hall, London
It must have been 1976, the year of its release, that I first heard The Dream of Gerontius, Sir Adrian Boult’s recording for HMV. To say I was spellbound and bowled-over by the music would be an understatement, as I had been just a week earlier by Britten’s War Requiem, the composer’s Decca taping, then the only version available. What teenage years of exploration.
If I were choosing one recording today, it would be Vernon Handley’s (now on Warner Classics, like Boult’s), with the wonderful Gerontius of Anthony Rolfe Johnson – I must also mention another tenor, Stuart Burrows, who was superb in a Royal Albert Hall performance (not a Prom) of the work numerous years ago with Sir John Pritchard conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra impressively and insightfully.
I digress. At the Proms in 2022 Edward Gardner and the LPO caught well the opening measures of restlessness, dankness and emotional outbursts as Gerontius lays dying … and how well Allan Clayton enunciated Cardinal Newman’s words, anticipating the journey to the next world with anxiety yet optimism, while balancing the books on this one, and sent on his way by a chorus of comforters (LPC & Hallé Choir members in fine collective voice), although Gardner’s unsentimental conducting (geared more to the theatre) somewhat undermined sublime moments; and if James Platt was a dignified and sonorous Priest, it’s impossible to forget Robert Lloyd (for Boult) at this juncture, Gerontius exiting the Earth, the Proms choral contingent reaching for the sky.
Rightly, there was no interval, although a little longer gap would have been welcome before Part Two got underway. How well Elgar paints new surroundings, with Jamie Barton suitably angelic and advisory as Gerontius seeks an audience with God, Gardner now finding greater musical expanse, giving time for rapt duetting from the Angel and the newly arrived soul. The ’Chorus of Demons’ had musical measure and flamboyant menace, if not quite the percussive attack needed (Boult the reliable guide here). The preparation for ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was celestial, Barton and Clayton continuing to be on wings of song, and then the choral floodgates opened… following which the music gets even more intense – Platt returning as the Angel of the Agony, rather Wotan-esque on this occasion, suggesting the conclusion Die Walküre, with Barton taking the high-note option fearlessly, and glass-shatteringly, as the LPO and Gardner built a blinding-light climax – and poignant, Barton “softly and gently” bidding “farewell” to the soul in the most affecting way, leading to a halo of choral and orchestral radiance.