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Review: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius by Bishop's Stortford and Barnet choral societies at Saffron Hall



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To jointly celebrate their 80th anniversaries, Bishop’s Stortford and Barnet choral societies joined forces to present Elgar’s towering masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, at Saffron Hall on Saturday night.

It was an immense pleasure to be seated in a hall that was nearly full to capacity and watch a performance by close on 200 people after being unable to do so for so long. Clearly the performers felt the same joy, with a real sense of anticipation waiting for the concert to begin.

The two choirs share a musical director in Richard Brain, here conducting the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra. In the orchestral Prelude they immediately conjured up a characterful sound world, from the wistful, slightly melancholic tones of viola and lower woodwind and the heavenly colours of divisi strings right through to the sonorous resonance of full brass, all clearly delineated in the wonderful acoustic of the hall.

From left, mezzo-soprano Felicity Buckland, conductor Richard Brain on the rostrum, tenor Peter Auty (Gerontius), bass-baritone Edward Grint, the combined Bishop’s Stortford and Barnet choral societies and the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra. Picture: Gareth Oakland (55996714)
From left, mezzo-soprano Felicity Buckland, conductor Richard Brain on the rostrum, tenor Peter Auty (Gerontius), bass-baritone Edward Grint, the combined Bishop’s Stortford and Barnet choral societies and the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra. Picture: Gareth Oakland (55996714)

Peter Auty (a very late replacement for an ailing Daniel Norman) gave a heartfelt rendition of the Soul (Gerontius) approaching death, his crystal clear diction allowing us always to follow the narrative. Joined by the choirs, supporting him in prayer, there was a tremendous warmth to the sound and the contrapuntal textures throughout were very well managed.

Edward Grint, as the Priest, showed a very rich bass-baritone in his declaration “Proficiscere, anima Christiana” (Go forth upon thy journey, Christian Soul), later joined again by the choirs in the uplifting chorus to end the first half – Elgar at his most noble and passionate, music of a rare and grandiose beauty.

In part two, Gerontius continues on his journey, accompanied by the Angel, here sung in a warm and radiant mezzo-soprano by Felicity Buckland – her recurring “Alleluia” managing to pierce the heart on each occasion.

Last-minute replacement Peter Auty receives the applause at the end of the performance, with Richard Brain on the conductor's rostrum. Picture: Gareth Oakland
Last-minute replacement Peter Auty receives the applause at the end of the performance, with Richard Brain on the conductor's rostrum. Picture: Gareth Oakland

The choirs gave their all in a powerful Demons’ Chorus, with the orchestra giving fine support with their fierce fugal writing, and later a gleaming Praise to the Holiest with its tremendous, long crescendo and build to the shattering C major climax.

There were a few occasions when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but in general the performance was well balanced and always well paced by the conductor.

Edward Grint gave a searing account of the Angel of the Agony before the final beauty of “Softly and gently” and the choir’s “Lord, Thou has been our refuge”.

Elgar wrote in his score “This is the best of me” and that may well be true. In this loving, affectionate and ultimately passionate performance, we were shown the power of music and the joy it can bring.

Richard Balcombe



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