Elgar's Dream of Gerontius review
Reviewer: John Button
Date: 20 September 2008
Concert: Dream of Gerontius
What: The Orpheus Choir, Nota Bene, Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Michael Fulcher with Kate Spence (mezzo), David Hamilton (tenor), Martin Snell (bass) and Douglas Mews (organ)
Where: Wellington Town Hall
In one of his earliest concerts with the NZSO before becoming music director, James Judd directed a performance of Elgar’s most popular choral work that established him, for me, as a major Elgar conductor. It was a powerful, superbly involving occasion, but the work itself has its problems. Not the music – impassioned and heartfelt – but rather the text by Cardinal Newman. To get the full impact of Elgar’s creation, the listener must accept the vision and language of Newman, but, unfortunately, I find the words cloying and mawkish.
Nevertheless, while accepting that Michael Fulcher does not have quite the conducting clout of Judd, or that the Vector Wellington Orchestra has the tonal resources of the NZSO, this performance was splendid on all counts. The choir, and sub-choir – not that big at around a hundred singers – sang with fervour and precision with the altos, in particular, outstanding.
The three soloists were extremely well matched. David Hamilton, as Gerontius, might have a voice sounding almost too English, but that’s not inappropriate, and he was wonderfully accurate. Martin Snell showed all the benefits of singing Wagner in Europe, and his Angel of the Agony displayed his baritone range to advantage. Perhaps the best of the three, though, was Kate Spence as the Guardian Angel. Her rich mezzo suits the role perfectly, and her control of vibrato allowed the final Softly And Gently to really soar.
The orchestra might have been down on numbers, but the played with considerable finesse, and the brass and wind were both polished and dynamic as required.
Michael Fulcher is one of the best choral directors I have heard in front of an orchestra, and his vision of a work that can, very easily, become a bit of an overblown hothouse was intelligent and deeply understanding, justifying the rousing reception it received from the audience.