Dream of Gerontius,
The North Yorkshire Chorus, Wetherby Choral Society, Mowbray Orchestra and soloists under the baton of John Dunford combined to give a memorable and moving performance of Elgar’s immense work in a setting that accommodates it so much better than the concert hall. Both choir and orchestra used the resonant acoustic skilfully, in more intimate passages as well as in the great climaxes; Greg Smith at the organ underpinned sympathetically but with panache when required – the sound of the massive pedal notes dying away in the awed silence at the end of Praise to the Holiest will remain long in the memory.
The balance in the orchestra was excellent, producing an attractive, blended tone throughout; the choir was alert, responsive and disciplined. Maybe the demons might have been more devilish, and there were some anxious moments in the fugal passage of Praise to the Holiest, but this was a performance of which singers and players should be proud. So, too, the conductor, whose sure sense of pace and structure was evident throughout. John Dunford’s programme note admitted to a personal involvement with the work that might have got in the way of the music, but it never did.
The tenor soloist, Philip Shefield, was the only disappointment of the evening. While Gerontius is undoubtedly operatic – a sort of English Parsifal - lite, so to speak – his unvarying declamatory style, singing sequences of notes rather than phrases, and the tendency to start each new entry just below the note, became tiresome. Novissima hora est should send a shiver down the spine – but it didn’t. Although the mezzo-soprano Margaret McDonald shared at times with Philip Sheffield a tendency to poor diction, her tone throughout the range was full but pure; she shaped phrases beautifully and was able to use an exquisite sotto voce as well as taking – thrillingly – Elgar’s high note options.
Bass-baritone John Anthony Cunningham was authoritative and focused, showing the other soloists that, even in the cathedral acoustic, it was possible to enunciate clearly and to ride above the full weight of the orchestra and choir. Fine theologian as he may have been, Cardinal Newman was no poet; yet this performance reminded us that the power of great music, performed with conviction and passion, can transform the most leaden words into an authentic spiritual experience.
(An edited version of this review appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 30 November 2012)