The Hallé can still create a great Manchester musical occasion as no other organisation can, and the performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, concluding a three-day Elgar Festival, was one of those not easily forgotten. It was also a sell-out, which is gratifying in these tough days for concert-givers.
Sir Mark Elder (who shares his June 2 birthday with Elgar – he’ll be 70, and the composer 160) has conducted this great oratorio with them a number of times, and made an award-winning recording of it. It was no surprise that he returned to it with real affection and enthusiasm, and he is still finding wonders in it: in some ways it was the most thrilling realization yet.
He had a vast choir to command, including the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, who were deftly used (as in the 2009 recording) to provide a pure and ethereal semi-chorus. He also had three remarkably gifted soloists for the work: David Butt Philip, an RNCM almnus who has been electrifying opera audiences here and in Leeds (and elsewhere) for several years, as Gerontius; Iain Paterson, a Wagnerian bass-baritone we’ve heard as Sachs and Wotan and who has all the gravity required as the Priest and Angel of the Agony; and Sasha Cooke, an American mezzo-soprano who is probably new to many of us here but has all the purity of tone and strength-in-reserve needed for the role of the guardian Angel.
In particular, David Butt Philip caught the all-too-human characteristics of the protagonist, whom Elgar wanted to be a red-blooded, passionate, fallible man, not a cardboard saint. He brought a touch of desperation to the conclusion of ‘Firmly I believe’ – as well a dying man might feel – and reality to his whole portrayal.
The choral singing was magnificent: beginning with pin-drop softness and not revealing its full weight until well into the work. But I don’t think the first and last chords of ‘Praise to the holiest’ have ever had quite such impact, and the fugal passages both in that number and the preceding chorus of Demons were tightly delivered and surging with power.
The Hallé Orchestra, led on this occasion by Adi Brett, played with immense distinction, employing silky string tone and with the ebb and flow of Elgar’s figurations clearly audible in a transparent sound that ranged from the most delicate dolce to massive fullness (and Darius Battiwalla’s contribution on the organ was very finely judged and added much to the breadth of sound).
Sir Mark paced the drama of the work with consummate skill, whipping up excitement for the judgment scene in Part Two and creating a glorious contrast with the serenity of paradise that followed. It was a memorable night.
l Broadcast on Monday 20 March on Radio 3.