I doubt that anyone could have left The Castle School unmoved after the fabulous performance of Dream of Gerontius by Thornbury Choral Society on Saturday 1st December. From the opening notes of the Prelude by the orchestra, ably led by Katy Latham, to the final strains of the Choir of Angelicals, the evening was a triumph.
Edward Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius” is a difficult work, both musically and spiritually. As a practicing Catholic, Elgar knew Newman’s poem well and it marked important events in his life, notably receiving a copy from his priest at his marriage to Alice. After completing his setting of parts of the poem in 1900 he said “This is the best of me”
The opening Prelude sets the scene, not just by playing some of the themes to be heard later in the work, but it’s spirituality and meaning. Conducted by Steven Kings, the orchestra captured this spiritual quality preparing the audience for the entrance of Gerontius. Philip Lloyd Holtam as Gerontius gave a vivid and moving portrayal of a man near to death, full of fear and dread, hitting beautiful top Bbs in “in thine own agony”. The audience could feel the intensity as he placed himself into the hands of God in “Novissima hora est”. Thornbury Choral Society, assisted by the semi chorus, New Bristol Voices, sang powerfully but with great compassion “Rescue him, O Lord, in this his final hour” as Gerontius prepares to be judged by God.
The introduction to Part 2 is typically Elgarian in sound, light and with a clarity of texture, setting the scene for the soul of Gerontius, “I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed”. Diction was clear and anguish gave way to calmness and rest. The Angel, in the form of mezzo-soprano Susan Marrs in a suitably silvery outfit, joined Gerontius. Her singing was expressive and in the dialogue between her and the soul of Gerontius was sensitive and moving. The music changes from moving to threatening as the choir demonically sang “Dread of hell fire”, This in turn becomes a thrilling sound with the words of “Praise to the Holiest in the heights”, sung with much feeling by the choir and excellently played by the orchestra. Special mention must be made of the three percussionists who were always on cue throughout the work,
The bass/baritone soloist has a difficult role. He has two short parts-the Priest in Part 1 and the Angel of Agony in Part 2. The high tessitura of the Priest suited Jeremy Huw Williams’ baritone voice but he lacked some depth and clarity as the Angel of Agony, perhaps not quite enough “shuddering dread”.
The closing music, “Praise to the Holiest” sung by the choir was magical with only the rapturous applause breaking the spell.
I look forward to Thornbury Choral Society’s 50th Anniversary and their next concert on Saturday 18th May.