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Elgar’s choral dreamwork was a pleasure to hear once more

Music lovers prepared to travel beyond Henley were in for a treat when Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was performed to a packed and appreciative audience at the Sheldonian Theatre.

This work is generally considered Elgar’s best piece of choral music, and by some the greatest of all choral music. It is a big work, written for two choirs, a semi-chorus and a large orchestra of late Romantic proportions.

Both the South Chiltern and Wantage choral societies provided the choirs — well over 100 singers — and Wantage Choral Society the semi-chorus as well. The St Giles Orchestra and choirs were conducted by Geoffrey Bushell.

This wonderful late Victorian work, first performed in 1900, expresses both high drama but also quiet soul-searching contemplation. It is based on Cardinal Newman’s poem concerning a dying everyman, Gerontius, and the travels of his soul with the Angel to Paradise or maybe Purgatory. Along the way we hear his friends and priest praying for him, the Angel who guides his soul past tormenting demons, the Angel of Agony, and a spectacular collection of Angelicals.

The rich and glorious music is full of expressive contrasts. There is fear of the unknown and pious reflection as well as great joy and a glimpse of God. This intense drama, manifested in complex multi-layered music, presents a challenge to all performers.

The three soloists, tenor Oliver Johnston (Gerontius), baritone Benjamin Bevan (the Priest and the Angel of Agony) and Claire Barnett-Jones (a mezzo-soprano late substitute for the Angel) were all excellent. Johnston sang with a tender, contemplative style, quietly reflective, identifying with text and music, but unfortunately the orchestra was not always responsive to his interpretation. Bevan’s warm baritone voice conveyed the Priest’s powerful dignity yet was sufficiently differentiated to inspire awe as the Angel of Agony. Barnett-Jones gave a truly touching performance, always on top of her brief and singing with her heart as well as great technique. The Angel’s beautiful “Softly and gently” was exceedingly dolcissimo and surely touched all our hearts.

The complexity of the choruses’ multi-layered parts plus the tricky venue were testing for the choirs. Despite a rather untidy start and a few shaky bits, they mainly coped with singing from opposite sides of the auditorium. When balanced and woven together correctly, they produced a great sound, especially in the dramatic eight-part “Praise to the Holiest” passages ensuring the “fff” parts were indeed very loud.

The dramatic contrasts demanded by the text and music throughout tended to get lost under the orchestra, but as always it was a pleasure to hear this magnificent music.

Susan Edwards

Review from the Henley Standard - 3 May 2019
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