Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” tends to haunt the repertory as a kind of fabled beast of grand oratorios, heard about more than it is actually heard. But anyone expecting an austere or forbiddingly monumental work often tends to be surprised by their first live performance. From the score’s opening pages, a certain intimacy of address coexists with music of great drama and grandeur.
After all this piece, based on the poem of the same name by John Henry Newman, brings to vivid life one man’s dream of his own death and his soul’s voyage to purgatory. Leitmotifs guide the journey, and musical sections seem to melt one into another. And all the while, we are of course meant to identify with the title character.
“I imagined Gerontius to be a man like us, not a Priest or a Saint, but a sinner,” Elgar wrote in a letter from 1900, the year of the oratorio’s premiere. “Therefore I've not filled his part with Church tunes and rubbish but good, healthy full-blooded romantic, remembered worldliness, so to speak.”
On Friday night in Symphony Hall, Benjamin Zander led the combined forces of his Boston Philharmonic and the Chorus pro Musica in an affirming and affecting performance of this unique score. From the opening bars of the solemn yet gentle prelude, he drew playing of noble warmth and expressiveness from the orchestra, setting a tone that remained near the center of this evening-length journey. Symphony Hall itself was built in the year this music was written, and its acoustic served this performance particularly well.
As Gerontius, the English tenor Robert Murray made his chilling first entrance — “Jesu, Maria— I am near to death” — at a near whisper, full of fear and supplication. Over the course of the night, he sang with tonal sweetness and sensitivity, remaining alert to the music’s sense of yearning, its “remembered worldliness.” The Australian bass Derek Welton was both the Priest and the Angel of Agony, singing with a clarion tone that was particularly effective as Gerontius breathes his last at the end of Part I. And the English mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw conveyed the consolatory tenderness, if perhaps not the full measure of elegance, in Elgar’s writing for the Angel.
For its part, Chorus pro Musica (Jamie Kirsch, music director) navigated its way honorably through Elgar’s dauntingly difficult choral writing, conveying much of its drama and layered richness. At the climactic moment in Part II when Gerontius’s soul glimpses the face of God, the orchestral roar was on the tamer side. But overall, Zander’s conducting throughout the night vividly brought across his contagious zeal for the opulence of Elgar’s idiom, its lavishly conceived landscapes of beauty and terror, and the composer’s own touchingly sincere faith in music’s ability to both imagine the afterlife and comfort the soul, every step along the way.
‘THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS’
Boston Philharmonic, with Chorus pro Musica
Benjamin Zander, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Friday night