There’s something strangely satisfying about the idea of Ex Cathedra using London’s Royal Festival Hall as a warm-up for the main event back home in Birmingham Town Hall, and that’s how I like to think of the choir’s recent travels with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
After appearing in the capital nine days ago, an enlarged chorus celebrating Ex Cathedra’s 40th anniversary helped mark the Town Hall’s 175th with two weekend performances of the great dramatic cantata which had such a problematic birth in this very building.
After 109 years Gerontius is now firmly entrenched as the masterpiece it is, but for these special occasions Ex Cathedra’s director Jeffrey Skidmore did a Doctor Who and returned to performance practices of 1900.
So we had the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, using “period” instruments (including trombones once owned by Elgar and Holst) and employing “period” portamento and flexibility of phrasing, bringing a wonderful transparency of line to what emerged as lean orchestral textures. I could only have wished for more darkness in the Parsifal-like deathbed scenes.
The choral singing was clear, well-projected and beautifully floated (I hope the tenors of 1900 were looking down and repenting). Adrian Thompson was an intelligent, poignant Gerontius, Roderick Williams delivered the Priest and the Angel of the Agony with a mellifluous authority which reminded me of the great John Shirley-Quirk, but Anna Stephany was in fact too disembodied an Angel (I’d love to hear this sung by a male alto as an experiment).
It was wonderful to hear the contributions of the sturdy organ which also accompanied the premiere. Not so wonderful to have an attention-breaking interval – not authentic.