Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, director Gavin Carr
Conductor Kirill Karabits
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
Paul Appleby, tenor
James Rutherford, bass
THE BSO brought its 2018-19 season of concerts at the Poole Lighthouse to a triumphant conclusion with a moving performance of Elgar’s great masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, written in 1900.
Using Cardinal Newman’s poem as its basis, it tells of the final moments of an old man, Gerontius, and the beginning of his soul’s journey after death, from judgement by God to purgatory. Not exactly an oratorio, Elgar conceived it more as a kind of unstaged Wagnerian music-drama for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
It was something of a gala night, with the Lighthouse packed, chief conductor Kirill Karabits leading the orchestra, a starry trio of soloists and the outstanding Bournemouth Symphony Chorus in fine voice. It was the night on which the orchestra announced an exciting and original programme of concerts for the 2019-20 season, and the concert was broadcast live on Radio 3. The sense of the orchestra having reached a new plateau of excellence was palpable.
The Dream of Gerontius is a frequently performed pillar of the English choral repertoire, probably second only to Handel’s Messiah in the number of performances clocked up in an average year. Ukrainian Karabits has long included Elgar’s music in his repertoire, performing the Enigma Variations regularly since his early days with the orchestra, but it is still relatively unusual to hear a non-English conductor in this work. This was Karabits’s first performance of the score, and he has spoken of the need to balance the mystical, romantic elements of the music with clarity: too far one way leads to unfocussed wallowing, too far the other leads to coldness.
I think he got the balance about right. His characteristic clarity and attention to detail were evident from the start, with the orchestra giving a glowing, sumptuous account of the prelude, from the hushed opening on violas and low woodwind to the resplendent climax for full orchestra with tripled woodwinds, four percussionists, two harps and organ.
The chorus is divided into eight parts, with an additional semichorus, and is a challenge to any group. The BSC excelled, negotiating the tricky chorus of demons in part two with aplomb, coping with Karabits’s demandingly brisk tempo. They had reserved another gear for the mighty return of the Angelicals’ Praise to the Holiest and their control of dynamics impressed throughout.
The soloists needed strong voices to compete with the huge forces behind them and all three delivered. The American tenor Paul Appleby was movingly expressive in the role of the dying Gerontius in part one and the soul in part two. Alice Coote was a sweet-voiced and comforting angel, and James Rutherford’s splendidly resonant bass was ideal for the twin roles of the priest in part one and the Angel of the Agony in part two.
You can hear this performance for yourself on BBC Sounds: search for ‘Radio 3 in Concert’, or follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00051jl