CBSO & CBSO Chorus at Symphony Hall ★★★★★
Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was back home in Birmingham, the city where it premiered in 1900. After the oratorio’s disastrous first performance Elgar excoriated the poorly-rehearsed premiere choir for making the choruses, “no better than a drawing room ballad”. How different the resounding power, presence and discipline of the CBSO Choir under Julian Wilkins, its Associate Chorus Director. They were there in force, filling almost the entire choir area, and rose to every challenge with gusto, skill and clarity. They were a fiercely sardonic gathering of demons, sneering at the “psalm-droners and canting groaners”, the penitents on their knees in the hope of ingratiating the divine “despot’s will” – their interjected laughs really venomous.
If oratorios are Victorian relics, like antimacassars and potted aspidistras, no one told the enthusiastic audience who packed Symphony Hall. Elgar rejected “Church tunes and rubbish”, wanting “good, healthy full-blooded romantic” music and there’s more of Wagner than Stainer and Stanford about it, with the mysticism of “Parsifal” in the Prelude and echoes of Isolde’s “Liebestod” in Gerontius’s realization of his impending demise. Brenden Gunnell was an ardent, questing penitent without the overly lachrymose or wilting approach of some tenors. As a specialist Heldentenor – Parsifal, Lohengrin and Siegmund are in his repertory – he was never under strain in the heaviest orchestral passages and was always convincing from his opening terror, “Jesu, Maria – I am near to death” to his reconciliation as his soul is flooded by a “grand mysterious harmony” illuminated by a sensitive use of head-voice.
There are few, if any, finer assumptions of Elgar’s Angel than mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. She’s been singing it for many years and her warmth and unforced quality of tone was a joy to hear combined with the ability to encapsulate a world of meaning in the single word “Alleluia!” The bass-baritone Ashley Riches was a firm, sonorous and saturnine Priest and Angel of the Agony. The concert was to have been conducted by Sir Andrew Davis but he was indisposed and replaced by Ryan Wigglesworth. I saw Wigglesworth conduct a promising Elgar Symphony No.1 with the CBSO in 2015 and he’s matured as a conductor since then and here marshalled his forces well. The CBSO players impressed throughout whether in the subtleties of Elgar’s use of divided string parts to moments of high drama like the dramatic outburst just before Gerontius’s cry of, “Take me away”.