If the spirit of a work can be said to reside in the patina of a building, then Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius is the adornment, the musical mosaic, that the great vaulted domes of Westminster Cathedral still lack. This week saw the centenary of its first performance there and the centenary of the cathedral itself. Cardinal Newman himself couldn't have planned it better. His words, so magnificently set by Elgar, belong in a place of worship. Their drama is implicit in the surroundings. The high altar beckons to even non-believers.
So it would have been fitting and suitably theatrical to have used the huge space. Acoustically speaking, you can't tame it, so use it. The ambience is a blessing in terms of atmosphere, a curse on clarity.
Listening to what appeared to be a perfectly decent performance of this great work from a central position less than halfway down the church, the music still seemed to be coming at one from a great distance. There were times when the effect was like hearing an echo of that first performance from a hundred years ago. The conductor, David Hill, did his best to keep his hefty Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in check, to measure the tempi, to articulate the rhythm, but so much of it fell victim to the acoustic. It was frustrating being denied the thrill of incisive choral entries in fugal passages like the Demons' chorus.
Gerontius himself - Adrian Thompson - initially sounding prematurely disembodied (until one's ears adjusted) had a good crack at this most demanding of roles. More churchy than theatrical, he nonetheless gave it some heart, though I cannot forgive him for breathing in the great "Take me away!" moment, any more than I can forgive David Hill for his absurdly pregnant pause into the Priest's "Proficiscere". And why did he not savour the huge final crescendo of Elgar's mighty "Praise to the Holiest" chorus? He and his forces could really have filled the space.
No, the most telling moments here belonged to the maternal voice of faith - the Angel - as assumed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. The acoustic was most welcoming of her rolling tones, and just as it had absorbed the deep resonances of tam-tam, string basses, and rumbling organ pedal, so it carried us "softly and gently" to the light, the boy choristers of the Westminster Cathedral Choir cutting brightly through the texture with one final reminder of "Praise to the Holiest" while Elgar's arpeggiating strings encircled them. The sound wafted up those naked brick domes and our eyes travelled with them. Perhaps one day there'll be something to see there.Reuse content