Much to enjoy
Colin Davies conducts Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius',
and ROBERT HUGILL was in the audience
The English oratorio is a curious genre and the canon of masterpieces is not large. Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius is the first oratorio since Handel's time to be written by an Englishman and to be acknowledged a masterpiece, by contemporaries and by history. This is a great curiosity because the composer himself felt that he was outside the musical establishment, both by training and religion (he was brought up a Roman Catholic); and the oratorio itself could not be further in subject matter from Handel's Anglican certainties.
The Dream of Gerontius is based on a poem by Cardinal Newman and deals with the dying, death and subsequent journey through purgatory of an ordinary man. Central to the oratorio's theme is the concept of purgatory -- the soul's working out of sins preparatory to going to heaven; and purgatory was one of the doctrines which the Protestant churches dropped at the Reformation. But for the vast majority of the audience, these doctrinal details do not matter; what matters is Elgar's wonderfully passionate, personal response to the subject matter and the glorious symphonic sweep of the music.
It helps that Elgar's music for the oratorio has imbued much of Wagner's influence. The form of the work is flexible and free flowing, with the orchestra playing as big a role in the narrative as the soloists and chorus. This was brought over very strongly in the performance of the oratorio at London's Barbican Centre on Sunday 11 December 2005, where the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Colin Davies. Davies took an expansive but flexible view of the work; from the opening notes of the spine-tingling prelude, this was a Dream of Gerontius with a superb orchestral contribution. It was easy to be impressed with the shattering climax of the work, when Gerontius's soul goes before God, but it is in the telling detail and beautiful shaping of paragraphs that the orchestra's contribution was really felt.
Copyright © 13 December 2005
Robert Hugill, London UK