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The Dream of Gerontius

Ripon Cathedral, 10 March 2012

Elgar Dream of Gerontius flyer

The Harrogate Choral Society’s performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in Ripon Cathedral on March 10 was a moving and inspiring event. Cardinal Newman’s very Catholic text may not be to everyone’s taste but when it is given with such conviction, it is difficult not to be drawn to the fate of the common mortal as he awaits death and his soul journeys to its final destination. And Elgar’s music seems so right for the fervour of this subject. Striking is the way in which he uses Wagnerian-like Leitmotivs which reappear in the orchestra as a commentary on the text to remind us of the themes of suffering, faith and hope.

The Dream of Gerontius is sometimes affectionately referred to as DOG and the conductor Andrew Padmore appropriately kept his forces on a tight lead as, in the First Part, the progression towards death was never hurried. However, these same forces were later to be let off the leash as a “fierce hubbub” arises and the Soul encounters Demons determined to block the path.

The chorus was in top form throughout the evening, clearly articulating the text, maintaining a bright tone, and coping well with the complex phrasing and eight-part harmonies of the long middle section of the Second Part. Particularly impressive here was the delicate singing of the semi-chorus who as Angelicals contrasted nicely with their colleagues who were mere Souls in Purgatory.

The orchestra, the Amici Ensemble, too contributed stoutly to the success of the performance. They gave an excellent account of the scene-setting Prelude, with a confidence in the brass and a rich tone to the lower strings. If, in their exposed passage at the end of the First Part, the violins failed to convince, this was perhaps because they had insufficient numbers for this demanding score.

Lucky Harrogate to have been able to secure for the performance such a team of distinguished soloists. Bonaventura Bottone, better known for his appearances on the operatic scene than for oratorio work, brought his fine Italianate tenor voice to the taxing role of Gerontius. He had the necessary ardour, but might have been able to differentiate the varying emotions with more interpretive colouring. The bass Robert Poulton, as the Priest and Angel of the Agony, impressed with his stentorian tone, while Margaret McDonald, as the contralto Angel, had the serenity and assured vocal presence to bring the work to a satisfying conclusion.

I cannot recall having heard before a whistle of approval from an audience at a classical concert in a church, but this was part of the acclamation which greeted the Ripon performance, and it was not altogether unjustified.

Anthony Ogus