Purgatory is not that bad, after all – SSO performs Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

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Seatte Symphony plays Elgar's Dream of Gerontius
Seatte Symphony plays Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Last Thursday the SSO and Chorale, led by conductor Edward Gardner, performed Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius Op.38 featuring mezzo Sasha Cooke (The Angel), bass David Soar (The Priest/Angel of the Agony) and tenor Robert Murray (Gerontius).
The evening had the usual warmth of the sacred oratorios and also the spontaneity of Elgar’s style. During the introduction the orchestra appeared precise and attentive yet somehow conservative. Gerontius, an elderly man about to pass away sings Jesu, Maria – I am near to death. The English tenor Robert Murray is an expert in this range with a perfect recitation of Henry Newman’s poem. His voice was homogenous and ample, with woody low notes and a metallic glitter in the upper register. It felt maybe too healthy for the role of Gerontious, but anyway enjoyable. At the end of his introductory aria Murray surprised patrons with a delicate and tasteful smorzatura.

The SSO Chorale witnessed Gerontius agony with the cannon Kirie eleison – sunny notes on the violas accompanied a moment full of sincerity. The scene achieved drama with Gerontius’ aria Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus. Murray’s voice, though a bit over necked, finely captured the emotion of the score. Gerontius is living his last moments but we do not hear complaining or remorse in his words, only a sense of adventure and an imminent beginning in the music. The legato of the vocal line was fiercely underlined by the orchestra, like sun rays piercing stormy clouds. Gerontius (Murray) pled Mary, Mary pray for me – attacking the phrase with ethereal pianissimo.

The priest assisting Gerontius at his deathbed was played by bass, David Soar who has a large and appealing voice and approached to the role with required gravity. Despite his youth, Soar possesses a fine artistic sense and musicality, demonstrated in singing with the chorus, Go forth in the name of Patriarchs and Prophets. This excerpt represents some of the finest music ever composed by Elgar, who achieved the perfect balance between spirituality and passion, creating a peaceful atmosphere where even the worst fears seem to disappear.

Seatte Symphony plays Elgar's Dream of Gerontius
Seatte Symphony plays Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Deeply influenced by the music of Richard Wagner (the use of leitmotiv and the continuous melody are easily identifiable) The Dream of Gerontius has the heroic aroma of Parsifal, but is somehow more natural and relaxed. The poet Newman followed faithfully all the Catholic dogmas about the afterlife, thus Gerontius’ spiritual journey is pretty ordinary. Elgar kept close to this approach, avoiding vocal ornament, however, the music inspires the deepest of emotions by exploring the boundaries between divinity and humanity.

In his way through heaven, Gerontius is escorted by an angel, played by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. After her undeniable success as Hansel with the Seattle Opera in October, Ms Cooke id proved again in this oratorio. In the aria My work is done, My task is o’er, Cooke was neither manly nor feminine,nor passionate or lifeless. She achieved the right balance appearing angelic and intimate at the same time. The darkness of her timbre, with dark coffee notes, it definitely worth hearing.

As Gerontius and the angel walk to the House of Judgement, surrounded by shameless demons and angelic celestial creatures we find more complex orchestral structures in the music. It’s very interesting to realize how Elgar depicts agitation and anxiety as the counterpoint to the couple, Gerontius and the Angel. Despite a few plump passages, conductor Edward Gardner achieved some remarkable moments – the moving choir of angelicals, Praise to the Holiest, where organ, chorus and orchestra engaged in a hypnotic flow of music finishing with a terrific tutti. Within the SSO, the work of principal cellist Efe Baltacigil´s infectious passion and commitment was an inspiration for his colleagues.

Carlos J Lopez