Edward Elgar’s Oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with its near-Wagnerian score places great demands on soloists, choirs and orchestra. First performed in 1900 it remains the most popular of Elgar’s choral works and is among the most frequently performed of all his work.
Set to text from the poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the oratorio tells of the journey of a devout man’s soul through death (Gerontius = ‘old man’) to final judgement. It is a work that demands soloists with operatic muscle, coupled with the clearest of diction to enable the meaning of the words to be appreciated by the audience.
For this performance the soloists were Emily Howard Cobley – Mezzo Soprano (Angel); Benjamin Sweeney – Tenor (Gerontius); Thomas D Hopkinson – Bass (Priest & Angel of the Agony). The semi-chorus was drawn from members of the Society with Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra and Organist Samuel Hudson. The work was conducted by the choir’s Musical Director – Tom Newall.
The performance begins with a long orchestral prelude which introduces the recurring themes of Judgement, Fear, Prayer, Sleep and Despair. This scene is set by Gerontius –’Jesu, Maria – I am near to death…’ followed by the mystical sound of the semi-chorus which appeared to float from a distance, despite their location in the centre of the choir. At this early stage, the audience was fully engaged.
The Dream has some especially dramatic moments. Gerontius’ death is marked with some powerful and violent music, rising to a crescendo at the Priest’s words: ‘Go in the name of Angels and Archangels’, as the choir joins in before the end of the first Part.
The soul’s journey in the second part is guided by the Angel. They encounter the demons who sing a loud and mocking fugue intensified by sarcastic laughter (a chance for the choir to depart from their usual balanced sound !). The work reaches its peak when Gerontius enters the House of Judgement. His soul’s impassioned plea to be taken to Purgatory is helped by an ear-shattering burst from the orchestra.
However, what really stays in the memory are the great angelic chorus of praise, the familiar ‘Praise to the holiest’ and the final aria for the Angel and Chorus, ‘Softly and gently’.
If only the soloists had been seated in front of their platform. Their long approach distracted many. Despite that this was a deeply moving performance under the inspirational leadership of Tom Newall, where soloists, choir and orchestra combined to produce an evening that will stay in our memories. I saw several members of the audience who were moved to tears.