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The Dream of Gerontius, Andrew Davis, BBCSO: 'remarkable'

04.07.14
Sir Andrew Davis
The Telegraph

****

By John Allison

Andrew Davis is celebrating his 70th birthday by immersing himself deeply in the choral works of Elgar. Working closely with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he follows this Dream of Gerontius with The Apostles on Saturday, and there are rumours of at least one more oratorio coming up over the summer. Meanwhile, next month Davis goes to the Bergen Philharmonic, appropriately enough, to perform and record the rarely heard King Olaf.

Finishing the score of The Dream of Gerontius shortly before its premiere in October 1900, Elgar famously inscribed the end with a quote from John Ruskin: “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” Though his greatest symphonic masterpieces were still to come, nothing in Elgar’s output was to surpass Gerontius for its unprecedented originality, one reason why its premiere was such a fiasco, not to mention a cause even now for the work still sometimes being misunderstood and viewed through the lens of English oratorio.

Here, though, Davis magnificently showed how it is an unstaged opera in the mind of a dying man. Bringing both his instinctive understanding of English music and his vast operatic experience to bear on the performance, Davis sculpted very concentrated orchestral playing right from its wistful, sighing opening. More than most conductors, he made the Leitmotifs speak with dramatic sense.

The performance was even more remarkable for Stuart Skelton’s Gerontius. It’s a long time since anyone can have heard a Heldentenor in this music – probably not since Richard Lewis or Jon Vickers – and Skelton showed how full-blooded, romantic and un-churchy Elgar’s writing really is. Perhaps his effortless, virile tone made Gerontius’s dying utterances occasionally sound too easy and pain-free, but his cry of “Take me away” was at once searing and thrilling.

The rest of the line-up was, unsurprisingly not quite on this level, though David Soar’s Priest had just the right smooth, blackish tone and hieratic presence except at the top of his range. The BBC Symphony Chorus was strong, but with the exception of some unusually vivid Demons’ cackles, seemed to approach the work from the oratorio angle. Sarah Connolly delivered radiant soft singing if not all the rich voluptuousness required to make the Angel’s Farewell a haunting and consoling close.