The Dream of Gerontius, Three Choirs Festival, Hereford Cathedral, 30/07/22 5*****. David Gray & Paul Gray

JS Bach Fantasia & Fugue in C minor (arr. Elgar)
Elgar – Dream of Gerontius

I wasn’t entirely sure about the inclusion of J S Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C Minor as arranged by Elgar to kick off this concert.  The stodgy and heavy-handed approach taken to Bach’s music in the 19th and early 20th Century seems so out of step these days, and I wondered about the relevance of such a work.  In the event, Elgar didn’t so much arrange Bach’s composition as re-realise it with wit and richly imagined orchestral colours, turning it into something of an orchestral showpiece.  The Philharmonia responded with terrific panache.

Similar flair was on display during the Prelude to the Dream of Gerontius, with string playing of great depth and richness and attention to detail from conductor, Geraint Bowen.  This really highlighted all of the thematic material which goes on to become so important as the work progresses.

Tenor, Nicky Spence, sang with diction that pinged through the acoustic.  Not a word was lost and not a word was delivered without thought for its import and meaning.  Spence totally inhabited the role, delivering it with dignity, drama and absolute conviction – and not without an (albeit graceful!) wedge of Oratorian-style high camp – and what a voice! 

Neal Davies, singing with equal clarity, gave an impassioned performance as as firstly the Priest and then, in the second half as The Angel of the Agony.  These were two Wagnerian voices giving operatic performances of what is, essentially, a psychodrama. And, gosh, wasn’t Elgar indebted to the chromatic harmonic world of Richard Wagner, and, indeed, the Catholic grandeur of Anton Bruckner?

In the second part there was a feeling of experiencing a kind of upstaged theatre. This manifests in the wonderful dramatic interplay between Spence and Dame Sarah Connolly.  Vocally ravishing, Connolly gave us an Angel compassionately involved in the progress of her human ward towards his redemption. All held breath as Connolly approached the Angel’s (optional) fortissimo top A. Would she, like Dame Janet Baker before her, hit that very high note (and for a Mezzo, a top A is a big ask!) and simply stay up there, or would she just dust the note and get on with things? Indeed, Connolly just gave the note a dusting, but a jolly good dusting at that.

The Festival Chorus could have mustered a bit more spite & venom during the Demons’ Chorus, but they truly raised the roof during Praise to the Holiest and joined with Connelly in a deeply felt and profoundly moving Angel’s Farewell.  An uplifting conclusion to a thrilling performance of Elgar’s masterpiece which brought this excellent Three Choirs Festival 2022 to a close in both style and substance. Truly a most remarkable week of outstanding music making of the very highest quality.

Dame Sarah Connelly – Mezzo-Soprano
Nicky Spence – Tenor
Neal Davies – Bass

The Three Choirs Festival Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Geraint Bowen – Conductor

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