15 July 2023

What a splendid concert!  Well worth struggling through the rain and hurricane wind to join an immense sell-out audience in one of England’s most beautiful cathedrals.

When it was built of course this was a Roman Catholic building, and we could almost have done with a whiff or two of incense to accompany this extremely un-Protestant work. The odour of sanctity is continuously present in the Newman poem that Elgar called “awfully solemn and mystic”. The sound of Parsifal pervades the whole work.

I must admit that this sanctity rather put me off when I first heard it as a skeptical schoolboy. In fact I was not too shocked when someone (almost quoting Matthew Arnold) called this incredibly Wagnerian music a “melancholy, long, withdrawing wail”. It is certainly the most un-English music that the hearty Elgar of Pomp and Circumstance ever composed. But then of course it is marvellously warm and human, as well as mystical. Elgar was frighteningly sensitive; his eyes apparently blinked non-stop. Like Amfortas in Parsifal he seemed to have a wound which would not heal. Gerontius and the slow movements of his two symphonies lay his heart bare.

Although I owned a first edition of the great score, my early misgivings meant that I never felt a great wish to conduct the piece which my parents used to affectionately call Gerry’s Nightmare.  So it was with a certain nervous curiosity that I approached the opportunity to hear it once again.

All the more thanks then to the excellent performers that I enjoyed it immensely. The evening had real atmosphere, as well as technical bravura. Andrea Brown the conductor was in complete command of the complex score. Her splendid singers, the Exeter Festival Chorus, together with those from Hanau and Bad Homburg in Germany, and the delightful Youth and Junior Choirs of the Cathedral, sang with real understanding and power (what Sopranos!), while the three soloists were totally convincing: Jess Dandy and Alex Ashworth as the Angels, and the formidable John Upperton, standing in at 10 hours notice, as Gerontius. The excellent Southern Sinfonia, their tiny string numbers sounding much larger than that, made me proud to be their Patron. It’s quite an achievement to arrive on the day, play just one rehearsal, and turn in a performance like this one. These fine musicians do it all the time.

This splendid performance, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Chorus, was a great musical occasion for Exeter. The huge audience showed their appreciation with powerful and heartfelt applause.