Concert November 2014
Winchester Music Club performed what is widely regarded as Elgar’s masterpiece, which had its first performance in 1900. The Dream of Gerontius is a setting of John Henry Newman’s poem of the same name. It portrays the journey of the soul from death to Judgement then Purgatory on a grand scale, ranging in tone from full Elgarian passion to moments of intense tranquillity and great beauty. Also on the programme was the premier of local composer Francis Pott’s Sentinel. This short work was commissioned jointly last year by Winchester College and Sospiri, an Oxford-based chamber choir, and commemorates the fallen of the Great War, merging texts by poets Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg.
- Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
- Pott: Sentinel
- Louise Crane – The Angel, mezzo soprano
- Justin Lavender – Gerontius, tenor
- Ashley Riches – The Priest and Angel of the Agony, bass baritone
- Winchester Music Club
- Winchester College Glee Club
- Winchester College Quiristers
- Winchester Music Club Orchestra
Concert Review by Duncan Eves
The nave of Winchester Cathedral was full for this concert commemorating the outbreak of World War One, in which Elgar’s choral masterpiece was placed alongside a new piece by local composer Francis Pott, performed by the Winchester College Glee Club.
Sentinel has texts by Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, both killed in WW1, and is set for unaccompanied choir. Pott’s skilful merging of the texts of the two poets brings out not only the universal futility of war but also highlights the bleakness and inner anguish that pervades their writing. An experienced choral singer, Pott exploited vocal textures to good effect, with dissonances, soaring lines and blocks of sound expertly manipulated to create a dramatic soundscape. Edward Thomas’ bleak recurrent vision of night rain was effectively captured in the low-register repetitions of the word ‘rain’.
Congratulations all round: to Winchester College for their involvement in the commission, to Francis Pott for adding to the repertoire of World War One commemorative pieces and to the performers for tackling this challenging piece.
The Dream of Gerontius sets its own very different demands: a large chorus is required to convey the brilliance of the great choral climaxes, yet there also has to be delicacy and lightness in some of the ethereal, angelic moments. Elgar’s treatment of his choral forces is quasi-operatic: death-bed prayers, howling demons, suffering souls in purgatory and the blazing intensity of the angelic hosts. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the conservative Anglican bodies of Edwardian England shied away from allowing these Catholic sentiments to infiltrate their hallowed stonework.
No such problems here in Winchester in the 21st century! I would have liked even more snarl and cackle from the demons of Music Club but it would be churlish to deny the characterisation and energy of this most challenging portion of the work. The prayer sections were delivered with subtlety and expression, with excellent contrast between the semi-chorus and the main body of singers and the Go forth chorus at the end of Part One was suitably splendid and magisterial. The long build up to Praise to the Holiest (some lovely ethereal singing from the semi-chorus here) was carefully handled, the sudden and dramatic outbursts that quickly subside being a particular challenge to control so that the arrival of the climactic entry is not lessened. Nicholas Wilks paced it all perfectly and the thrilling entry of the great C major chorus rightly seemed to shake the cathedral foundations.
Underpinning all this is, of course, Elgar’s superb orchestration. For an amateur orchestra this music presents a real challenge to which the Music Club orchestra rose magnificently. Nick coaxed some beautiful warm tone from his strings and the playing in the Prelude to part Two was hushed and delicate. Throughout the work Elgar’s woodwind solos were sensitively phrased and balance was handled well. The horns blended their passages with equal sensitivity and Elgar’s skilful writing gave full rein to the brilliance of the full brass and percussion sections.
Tenor Justin Lavender sang the role of Gerontius with clarity and insight. In Part One he was vocally slightly under par but he recovered his voice for Part Two, where his dialogue with the Angel captured the mood of anticipation. Towards the end, and after singing his heart out for nearly an hour he absolutely nailed his entry on the high A for his last big aria Take me away. In the role of the Angel Louise Crane was superb, her rich and mellow tone cutting through the orchestral texture and her diction and expressive quality conveying the drama with absolute certainty. The Angel’s Farewell was movingly sung, the soft tone beautifully controlled. The bass, Ashley Riches, made a commanding presence in both his solos. His rich and powerful voice filled the cathedral and conveyed the dramatic authority required for these arias. Impressive in the Go forth aria in Part One, he darkened his tone suitably for Jesu! by that shuddering dread in Part Two.
A thought-provoking première and a genuinely moving late Romantic masterpiece; inspired programming and inspired motivation of the performers from Nick Wilks: a good way to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WW1.