Dream of Gerontius


Performances of Elgar’s oratorio ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ are hardly infrequent, but this one was special for a number of reasons. It is usual for the work to be performed alone on the programme but in this instance it was introduced with a new work,, ‘Cusp’, composed by Roderick Williams to a text by Rommi Smith. ‘Cusp’ is especially designed to complement it in both theme and mood. Whereas ‘Gerontius’ focuses on an old man’s death and the subsequent journey through Purgatory to a momentary glimpse of God, Williams and Smith are concerned to probe the perspective of those left behind who both witness and have to come to terms with death. In four movements mirroring the seasons the text explores the various stages of grief, sometimes echoing the tropes of Cardinal Newman’s poem and sometimes offering modern insights drawn from the experiences of mourning by members of the Bach Choir, who perform the work, together with the Philharmonia Orchestra and solo contributions from Williams himself.

The piece is accessible and often lyrical in mood, evoking the style of composers such as Britten and Vaughan Williams, with whom Williams is most associated as a singer. The technical demands are considerable, though dispatched with ease by the choir. The orchestration is light touch, with many deft solo touches, and there are delightful interventions by a children’s chorus, with the whole work framed by recorded sounds from a hospital recovery room. The most memorable section was the last in which the poignancy of death is refracted through evocative memories of the departed fused with the experience of a perfect summer’s day, accompanied by lovely effects from strings and harp.

With this mood set, and without any break, David Hill led the orchestra into the hushed tones of the prelude to ‘Gerontius’, a measured, restrained statement of some of the key themes, with a keen ear for balance that became a theme of the overall performance, particularly in the ravishing antiphonal effects between the different elements of the chorus placed strategically behind and to the sides of the orchestra itself. Rarely have I heard the contrasts between the set pieces and the intimate, mysterious semi-chorus moments so exquisitely achieved.

The three soloists and the choir rose to the emotional and technical challenges of the piece very well. As Gerontius, Daniel Norman enacted the role by depicting both the fervour and fragility of the dying man and departed soul with great intensity. This carries vocal risks, not entirely avoided here, but dramatically justified. Roderick Williams approached his two great baritone solos with natural authority and warmth, especially notable in the noble conclusion to Part One, which attained the combination of the grandly sonorous and ethereal that was noted by August Jaeger at the first performance. As the angel who accompanies Gerontius to the presence of God, Jennifer Johnston was both kindly and commanding, wrapping up the work with a wonderfully enfolding rendition of ‘Softly and gently’.

This oratorio had a notoriously disastrous first performance from a choir unequal to its very considerable demands. No such problems here for the Bach Choir, who strode through the suitably fiendish twists and turns of the ‘Demons’ Chorus’ with aplomb, and delivered a magnificently wide-visioned account of ‘Praise to the Holiest’, which was so skilfully framed and prepared for by David Hill’s conducting. The orchestra play a major role in this work in their own right. Many delicious solo instrumental moments bubbled to the surface as commentary on particular points of mood and text, and the collective visionary grandeur of the brief glimpse of God was genuinely awesome.

The experience of death and reflection upon it as a witness or in the abstract is an essential and unavoidable part of the human condition. This evening gave us new and old points of entry to this world of essential experience that will linger long in the memories of those fortunate enough to be present in the Royal Festival Hall.


Royal Festival Hall

Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra

Conductor: David Hill

Soloists: Jennifer Johnston, Daniel Norman, Roderick Williams

16 May 2024

2 hrs 30 with interval