RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at National Concert Hall, on 19 May 2017
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s latest offering is something of a religious experience, presenting us with hosts heavenly and demonic as we observe the spiritual journey that is The Dream of Gerontius. Broadcast live for RTÉ Lyric FM, the evening is replete with the pomp and circumstance that the work’s performance and reputation demand. Presented by Lyric FM’s (and Golden Plec’s own) Michael Lee, the performance sees the exploration of that most perplexing of themes: Death, and what comes after.
The concert, Lee observes, marks the return of former principal conductor Gerhard Markson, and the final performance with the orchestra of long-time timpanist Martin Metrustry. As far as swansongs go, The Dream of Gerontius is certainly not too shabby. This evening’s performance sees the formidable alliance of musical forces as the NSO are joined by the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, tenor Mark Le Brocq and bass-baritone Neal Davies.
Elgar’s religious vision is one that is both divine and terrible, demanding a wide expressive range from its performers. The NSO prove themselves more than capable of conveying the sobriety of Elgar’s writing, with a rendition of the prelude that foreshadows the protagonist’s journey; beginning with a weighty sense of solemnity that becomes almost dreamlike as it progresses. Le Brocq’s Gerontius is, similarly, the ideal Edwardian. His performance reflects perfectly the temperate nature of his character, bereft of overtly dramatic flourishes, he embodies the ‘everyman’ nature of Elgar’s titular figure. Delivered in such a way that his lyrics seem soft-spoken, he is almost noble in his piety.
The work’s continued appeal is evident in its subject matter: death, inevitable as the passing of time itself, is as much a subject of fascination to the 21st century audience as it was to those at the dawn of the 20th. Elgar’s nuanced depiction of life-after-death is, nonetheless, coloured with the late-Victorian sensibilities that define the work, from Gerontius’ timidity in the face of the divine, to the fire-and-brimstone depiction of the demonic as he ventures into the ‘mystery beyond’.
Even given the weighty subject matter, this evening’s performance is at times, perhaps, a little too refined. While there are those moments of seraphic excellence—the Philharmonic Choir’s delivery of the angelical chorus is magnificent, as is Neal Davies’ depiction of the Angel of Agony—there are also those moments that lack the lustre that the writing aspires to. The demonic chorus, for all its cymbal clashes, orchestral hits, and timpani rolls, is not quite so ‘uncouth’ as Gerontius describes it. While Elgar’s writing in this section is indicative of an ordered sense of disorder—chaos as conceived in the Edwardian mind—its delivery lacks the sense of momentum that one expects from a frantic band of hellish fiends. The end result is, ultimately, still enjoyable, but is not quite the clamour that its text suggests.
Anaemic demons aside, the evening is characterised by a sense of reverie, both that contained within the piece, and that of the audience for the work before them. The Dream of Gerontius, rendered down to its most basic elements, seeks to express that which defies words, and sometimes sense, in music, and in doing so, make an ‘everyman’ out of each of us.
Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (mezzo soprano), Mark Le Brocq (tenor), Neal Davies (bass baritone); RTÉ Philharmonic Choir & RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gerhard Markson