Reviews

The Dream of Gerontius
Peter Lutton

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Sometime in March – receive request from Tony Woolfenden to write review. Agreed – have always liked Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and rarely turn down free concert.

21 June – hunt for own elderly, battered copy of vocal score, fortunately found quickly; last dated 1980 for Bach Choir performance under personal hero David Willcocks. (Intriguingly, find note at one point for Epsom Men to stand. Must have done it since, but cannot remember when/where.) Remember amusing method used by Willcocks to select suitable numbers from choir for semi-chorus: Sopranos under 21, Altos under 25, Basses under 30 and Tenors under 40. Suitable balance achieved…

22 June – cycle to catch (very quick) train from Ewell East to magnificent new London Bridge station and then pleasant walk to Southwark Cathedral Church, craning neck to look at extraordinary tall buildings. Navigate tortuous route to church entrance successfully. Privileged to be given excellent second row seat, along with impressive programme to study. Inspiring sight of so many keen (and familiar) faces eager to perform in imposing space.

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After noting slightly untidy start in orchestra, much impressed by power and style of tenor soloist Elgan Llyr Thomas

Choir entries good, balanced and well co-ordinated, despite distance between front and rear of platform. Fresh sound of semi-chorus. Bass soloist Jon Stainsby equally impressive and communicative – wish Elgar had given singer in this part more to do.

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Effort from tenor to avoid swamping by orchestra seems draining, but fortunately find later that soloist has something left for second half. Occasional balance problems as orchestra rather loud at times - hard to judge exactly, as so near front, but pp ought to mean as soft as possible – horns please note.

Incredible detail in score obvious once again – all sorts of detail meticulously marked, as always with Elgar. Performance so far adjudged to have shown choir making every effort to carry out precise directions – sensitive entries in Kyrie, though tutti slightly fluffed, and dynamic markings carefully observed in "Rescue him".

Interval – fortunately weather allows audience and choir to spill out into courtyard beyond impressive ancillary buildings. Pleasant banter with friends in choir and neighbours/choir supporters in audience. Facilities easily accessible, so all is ease and comfort - of no little importance, with age and occasional infirmity of scribe.

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Second half – blown away for second time, by mezzo soprano soloist’s power, artistry and quality of tone. As one (of many) marvelling over years at classic performances of one Janet Baker, feel that here is someone who can help us move on. Clear diction, strong projection and tender communication with tenor soloist show Judy Brown has great future.

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Having unashamed low-church Protestant background, not convinced by Catholic near-obsession with purgatory and supposed trials of Christian soul in after-life – unsurprised to learn from informative programme that early last century, some Anglican cathedrals did not allow performance, or attempted to tone down words; perhaps Blake’s line about "mind-forged manacles" in back of some minds here

However, feel it churlish to deny sheer conviction of faith shown first in Elgar’s music and then clearly revealed time and again in this performance, especially in chorus of demons - suitably dramatic and turbulent. Try to imagine early audience reaction in perhaps more genteel days.

Though expecting it, thrilled by climax of show – explosive choir entry on "Praise" as requested by composer, followed by magnificent choral gallop well sung; powerful words set to powerful music with desired effect emphatically achieved, despite inevitable blurring of some detail in large-building acoustic. Later minor grumble: semi-chorus weak in later section. However, no doubting heavenly bliss as depicted in final pages of Angel’s Farewell.

Deplore some over-enthusiastic audience member starting applause insensitively early – intended atmospheric ending lost too soon.

Overall, performance of great grandeur and real sensitivity, reflecting/justifying work’s veneration both here and abroad, almost continually since first successful performance

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In conclusion, ponder (not for first time) how to introduce dramatic power of large-scale English (and other) choral music to young people deprived of such exposure in today’s all-pervasive popular music and electronic machinery culture. Try to retain hope that good live music will always survive. Commend Julian Collings, Epsom Choral Society and Barnes Choir for effort in wonderful attempt to keep this happening.

Home by equally fast and convenient train, along with other happy concert-goers. Purple passages still ringing in ears…

Thanks to Clive Richardson for photographs - excellent as always

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