One of the great things about living in the Netherlands is the wide variety of art and entertainment available, whether it be in museums, concert halls or theatres. The night before this concert we were at a gig by an Argentinian singer-songwriter and the week before, watching international experimental opera. There is always something new and exciting here. But despite all that one does get the occasional pang of homesickness so when there was an Elgar concert at the de Doelen and, what’s more, played by a British orchestra, how could one resist.
And not just any old Elgar concert. His epic The Dream of Gerontius is arguably the composer’s unrivalled masterpiece and is, for all intents and purposes, an opera; one of almost Wagnerian magnitude and subject matter. Scored for full orchestra, including two harps and an organ, plus a tenor, a mezzo soprano and a bass, not to mention an eighty-strong choir – well, you get the picture.
First performed in 1900 and based on the poem by Cardinal Newman who had died two years previously, the piece had been considered by Dvořák some fifteen years earlier. It tells the story Gerontius’s deathbed judgment before God and then, in the second part, his final settlement in Purgatory. The Dream of Gerontius was so steeped in Roman Catholic theology and dogma that it was many years before it was performed in Anglican cathedrals. It was eventually performed in a doctored version at Elgar’s local Three Choirs Festival in 1910.
Magnificent is really the only word that does the piece, and this concert, justice. Under the baton of Martyn Brabbins, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the local Rotterdam Symphony Chorus, the music was not only breath-taking but, because of its scale the concert in the superb de Doelen, visually exciting too.
The three solo singers were in fine voice and all sang beautifully. Jennifer Johnston is a world-class mezzo in the classic mould and the bass, David Soar, was a joy to listen to. The tenor part in Gerontius is almost pure Wagner although the orchestration is typical Elgar. Andrew Staples was, for me, the high-spot of the evening, his voice and delivery the best I have heard in a very long time. I love a good tenor and Mr Staples was something very special and I shall look out for him in the future. This was a concert of the highest quality – and I’m not just saying that because it was a thoroughly British affair. Michael Hasted 2nd June 2018