Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 1st June 2019:
Cardinal John Henry Newman’s epic poem imagines the spiritual journey of Gerontius from deathbed to after-life. The text inspired Sir Edward Elgar to some of his most descriptive orchestral and vocal writing. Said Elgar at the time of the premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, on 3rd October 1900, ‘Gerontius is the best of me’. In 90 minutes of music, he blends the noble English choral tradition with more than a hint of the music dramas of Richard Wagner, most notably Tristan and Parsifal.
Saturday’s luminous performance showcased three great Leeds choirs. 250 choristers from the combined Leeds Festival and Philharmonic Choruses with St Peter’s Singers and the 80-strong Halle Orchestra were conducted by Simon Wright whose acute sense of pace maintained the narrative flow. This is, after all, Elgar at his most operatic and that does not apply only to his immense vocal demands on the soloists and choristers.
Wright’s skillful layering of textures achieved impeccable balance and illuminated Elgar’s vast musical canvas. The richness of orchestral detail in his expansive account of the scene-setting Prelude, from magically hushed opening woodwind and muted strings to menacing brass and growling bassoons, conjured up a sense of mystery and wonderment. The massed choirs responded to Wright’s dynamism with blistering needle point attack, whether as Souls in Purgatory, Anglicals, or the ferocious chorus of Demons. Praise to the Holiest In the Height burst into an incandescent cry of exultation from choirs and orchestra, beefed up by the sonorities of the Town Hall’s mighty organ played by Darius Battiwalla.
A stellar line-up of international soloists was led by tenor Barry Banks as a crystal clear and eloquent Gerontius, subtle of vocal colouring and with a superbly sustained Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Deus (Holy Mighty One, Holy God). One sensed the chemistry with Dame Sarah Connolly’s consoling Guardian Angel. Connolly’s humanity shone through her every phrase: each fervently expressed ‘Alleluia’ and with darkening of tone, her warnings of the impending judgement. Bass David Soar sonorously declaimed the Priest’s lines in Part One and had even more gravitas as the Angel of the Agony in Part Two. The great work ended sublimely with Softly and Gently, Dearly Ransomed Soul – the Angel’s tender farewell in which Connolly seemed to enfold the entire audience.