Saturday 15 July 2023
Exeter Cathedral

For its performance on 15 July to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Exeter Festival Chorus turned to Elgar's popular The Dream of Gerontius.

The noted Elgar authority, Michael Kennedy, observed that The Dream (adapted from words by Cardinal John Henry Newman) is not an oratorio, rather 'a dramatic poem set to music, a music drama of an elemental kind'. There's emotion too; when playing through 'Sanctus fortis' on one occasion, Elgar suggested that 'Verdi would have been glad to have written this tune!' At a pre-concert reception, EFC Music Director Andrea Brown also alluded to the work's dramatic and almost operatic content. So, before a gratifyingly capacity audience in Exeter Cathedral, how did the EFC performance meet the challenges of one of the masterpieces of the English choral repertoire?

Bolstering the choir were almost 100 singers who travelled to Exeter for the concert from the EFC's German partner choirs, the Hanauer Kantorei (assisted by eight students of the Karl-Rehbein-Gymnasium) and the Bachchor, Bad Homburg, while members of the Exeter Cathedral Youth and Junior Choir added further to the numbers. From the concert programme, I counted nigh on 200 choristers in total! Pre-concert rehearsals included Andrea Brown travelling to Germany, obviously to good effect. The blend between the three choirs was remarkable given the short time they had actually rehearsed together before the concert. Particularly impressive were their corporate diction and general accuracy. They sang with the dramatic power often demanded by both composer and conductor, as in the choruses 'Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels' and 'Praise to the Holiest in the height', but also with sensitivity in the quiet and different layers of sound that litter the score – the final pages of Part I were especially affecting. And a special word for the members of the Cathedral Youth and Junior Choir and their brief but effective contributions in Part II of the work: they were perfect angels!

One advantage of such a large choir in the not always helpful acoustic of the Cathedral is that it can ride above the orchestra in the louder passages. This was certainly the case in this performance except, perhaps, in the Demons' chorus, where some of the ferocity of the text was lost in the welter of orchestral sound (the brass were wonderfully snarling!). But no blame should be attached to the Southern Sinfonia, which played its heart out for Andrea Brown during this sometimes turbulent score. The orchestra's impressive playing of the long, tense and swaying prelude to Part I opened the performance in fine style and, throughout, it was sensitive to the wide dynamics of the work. The muted strings accompanying Gerontius in 'I went to sleep' at the start of Part II were beautifully dream-like. (As an aside, I should add that the EFC was glad to welcome the orchestra's Patron, Sir Roger Norrington, to the performance.)

Of course, it is the three soloists who carry the work and this was not without an initial drama. The advertised singer for the role of Gerontius was indisposed and it fell to John Upperton, at less than 12 hours’ notice, to fill the gap. And how well he did so! His bright tenor voice ensured that every word could be heard and he brought passion and feeling to Gerontius's journey from the point of death via the great declamation, 'Sanctus fortis' onwards to Purgatory. Assisting Gerontius on his way, the bass Alex Ashworth was a truly commanding Priest (in Part I) and Angel of the Agony (Part II), riding the orchestral and choral sounds with ease and textual clarity – I'd like to hear him in the Verdi Requiem! Guiding Gerontius in the after-life was mezzo Jess Dandy as the Angel. Her contralto-like register was warm and supportive, culminating in a moving, gentle farewell to Gerontius's soul to end the performance.

The standing ovation accorded by the audience to the performance undoubtedly reflected the stirring performance that we had just heard, but I like to think it was also celebrating the 30th anniversary of distinguished music-making by the Exeter Festival Chorus!

David Batty