Elgar and Roderick Williams: conjoined meditations on Death

The full impact of Gerontius' spirituality did not quite come across in this eminently well-disciplined performance

Elgar and Roderick Williams: conjoined meditations on Death

R. Williams, Elgar Daniel Norman (tenor, Gerontius); Jennifer Johnston (soprano, Angel); Roderick Williams (baritone, Angel of the Agony); The Bach Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra / David Hill (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.05.2024

Roderick Williams Cusp (World Premiere)

Elgar The Dream of Gerontius

The Dream of Gerontius is one of Elgar's supreme masterpieces, and a cornerstone of the choral repertoire. It also demands excellent soloists, not least Gerontius himself. It also demands of the listener rigorous attention and sustained concentration - impossible, really, if one inserts an interval between Parts I and II of Gerontius, as was the case here. If London audiences can revel in the divine length of the acts of Wagner's Götterdämmerung (as they did recently), they can do a couple of hours of Elgar plus a short-is prelude. The conjoining of the Williams and the Elgar (as requested, without applause) is perfect; the ensuing gap between parts I and II of the Elgar less so.

The basis of Roderick Williams' Cusp is fine indeed: a mediation and examination of passing, a mapping of the stages of grief onto the four seasons, to a poignant text by Rommi Smith (born 1973). Cusp was commissioned by The Bach Choir, and Williams states that he wants to look at the underlying subject of Gerontius, but from a different angle. Both Williams' and Elgar's works provide a real service - to bring our attention (the audience's) onto a subject we would normally prefer to ignore: death. And while Elgar's score and Cardinal Newman's texts have a somewhat distanced effect, Williams' score is very much of our time: it begins and ends with recorded sounds from a hospital.

As Williams himself states in the video below, “there are a lot of different aspects to bereavement, and there's a lot of light amongst the shade". Williams talked to members of The Bach Choir about their experiences of bereavement. Rommi Smith’s text is split into four seasons, beginning with Autumn before moving into a (bleak) Winter, set in a hospital waiting room, Spring offers a chance of shedding the accrued “snow,” and also of growth, of reconstituting the shattered psyche, of exiting the shadow of the deepest form of grief; the closing season is Summer, which Williams sees as “the most appropriate season with which to hand the piece over to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius”.

Here is Williams himself talking about his piece:

In terms of examination of death itself, Williams' piece perhaps lies in the shadow of Mat Collishaw's phenomenal film performed with Fauré's Requiem by Insula (see my review on here of the Barbican performance). Collishaw's visual realisation of Fauré's piece is utterly uncompromising; while Williams' piece seeks to gently invite people to have conversations, internally or externally, about death, Collishaw positively grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.

Williams' indications are such that Autumn is set in a “hospital/hospice” where a family stands around the bed of a loved one who is dying; in “Winter” the scene is the same bu the person has died, and “the reality of death is sinking in to those left behind"; “snow represents the numbness death and grief impose on the living”. So, the first stage of grief: numbness. “Spring” refers to a well-known phenomenon - swearing that one encounters the deceased from a distance, in a crowd (the setting is “a busy street in spring”). Finally, Summer is set at Midsummer at dawn in a room, but now in a house, not a hospital, and the protagonist comes to some sort of peace. While physical artefacts might remind us of the departed (“I find a coat you would have worn”), there is a widening out to find the beloved “in the dusk ... in both song and flight”. There is hope, and yet pain still remains hence the easy segue into the meditations of the first part of the Elgar.

Williams is beyond doubt influenced by the English Pastoral tradition, and in particular another "R. Williams" casts his shadow over the score: Ralph Vaughan Williams, perhaps especially at the opening of the second panel, “Winter”. There are nods to Elgar, too, The text is quite extensive for a piece that lasts around 20 minutes - subtitles would have helped, possibly, although the text was available in the programmes.

The Bach Choir is an excellent choir, beyond doubt, and it is they who get the lion's share of the piece; perhaps as a reflection of his natural modesty, Williams' own part is surprisingly minimal. As composer, he shapes the music well, the first climax at the arrival of the “death rattle” (that particular type of throaty breathing) well delivered. One has to credit the sopranos and their excellence in the chilly and sometimes difficult writing in “Winter”. Fascinatingly, this has to be, surely, the first musical setting of “Haloperidol” and “Oxycodone,” “Fentanyl” and Diamorphine” (all drugs used frequently in end of life care) - presented as a repeated “catalogue”. A nurse opens a window, “to let your spirit out into the night,” a nod to superstition operating hand-in-hand with cold science. Only once does Williams verge into sensationalst/cinemaic territory, as "The Wider Family Sings" (“Snow falling into the doorways of yearning”).

“Spring” is bookended by a harmonic sequence that seems the most powerful in the entire work. No surprise, perhaps, that Williams, a singer of vast experience, writes so deftly for the chorus in this movement. Finally, “Summer,” a ray of hope. Williams offers a space in which healing may, at last, take place, a place where the self can reconstitute, where the harsh pain of immediate disconnection now morphed into something deeper. Life goes on, impoverished by the loss of the beloved and yet richer for the experience.

Williams' piece is impressive on many levels, if perhaps a touch over0long for its materials. The shift into the Elgar was well done, and as the music started it was like putting on a pair of familiar, warm slippers. But perhaps the juxtaposition of Williams and Elgar is a little cruel; we slip also into the hands of a Master, Elgar”s genius confirmed by the act of juxtaposition.

A great Gerontius needs a great tenor and a great conductor. David Hill is a fine conductor, and unsurprisingly given his pedigree his marshalling of the choral forces was exemplary.

Hill's shaping of the orchestral opening was superb, the ground beautifully prepared, a lovely viola solo from Rebecca Chambers. He extracted from the Philharmonia the ideal mix of clarity and warmth; the choir's ripostes (the “Kyrie” and “Holy Mary, pray for him”) were nothing short of magnificent, entries perfectly judged (the voice distribution was, SATB: 59; 57; 27; 53); the choir was perfectly together at “Be merciful, be gracious”. It was a surprise, then, that the radiant passage, “Go, in the name / Of Angels and Archangels” was less bright as one might imagine they could be; another moment of defeated expectation was the Chorus of Demons from the second part (“Low born clods of brute earth ...”); quite tame demons here, the cries of “Ha! Ha!” distinctly of human bent: perhaps these demons were already restrained in a magician's Circle of Power?

The tenor was Daniel Norman has a wide repertoire (from Bach to John Adams) but seemed miscast on this occasion. Too many croaks (there wa no announcement of vocal problems), and too little anguish (“O Jesu, help! pray for me, Mary, pray!” went for little). In a sense it was a shame he was set against Roderick Williams' superb Priest, so confident at “Proficiscere, anima Christiana,” Williams capable of successfully rising above full symphony orchestra, every syllable perfectly placed.

David Hill conducts the Philharmonia, image © Andy Paradise

Part Two began with more viola excellence, here for the entire section. The Philharmonia surely has the most purely beautiful string sound of all London orchestras. And one of Daniel Norman's finest moments came in the sense of wonder he accorded to the words “How still it is!”.

It is the Angel who sits in dialogue with Gerontius in the first section of Part Two. My previous experiences of ex-New Generation Artist Jennifer Johnston have been positive, in Mahler's Second Symphony (again with the Philharmonia, review) and also in the opening Prom of the 2019 season (review). Johnston was mesmeric here, daring with opening out her vibrato in crescendo perhaps, but her “Alleluia, for evermore” was heart-meltingly touching; the balancing “Alleluia” that ends that section, was very different, almost trumpet-like, a truly intelligent reaction to text, impeccably delivered. Like Williams, her projection was beyond criticism. Good, too, that there was a palpable sense of dialogue between Soul (Gerontius) and Angel (when Gerontius enters with, “Dear Angel, say ...”).

The difference between Gerontius and the Angel did come through, though, in the close juxtaposition of the Soul's “My soul is in my hand” (Norman almost drowned out, and Johnston absolutely resplendent at her “And now the threshold,” her impact bolstered by the sheer wall of sound of the chorus of Angelicals at “Praise to the Holiest in the height”). Perhaps it was Hill’s affinity with choir rather than orchestra that led to the contrast to the Bach Choir's clear engagement here and the surprisingly literal, meaningless brass interjections in this choral passage. A nice touch though, later, to have the choir seated for their “Be merciful,” when they represent “Voices on Earth”.

As the “other” angel, the Angel of the Agony, Roderick Williams was magnificent. Elgar gives him an almost Wagnerian lead-in, crowned by the singer”s first cry of “Jesu!”. The choir has the last words, and beautifully delivered they were, too.

But the full impact of Gerontius' spirituality did not quite come across in this eminently well-disciplined performance. For that, and although Boult would of course be the prime reference on disc, perhaps try a more modern version: Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé and soloists Paul Groves, Alice Coote and Sir Bryn Terfel (links below). And to supplement a supplement, here's the Hallé's 2005 Prom Gerontius, also under Elder and with the same soloists, save for Matthew Best replacing Terfel:

The Hallé recording is available at Amazon here; streaming links below.

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Mark Elder, Paul Groves, Bryn Terfel, Bryn Terfel, Alice Coote, Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Choir, Edward Elgar. Stream now on IDAGIO