The 20th century’s most beautiful oratorio was written right at the beginning (technically, just a little before) it. Elgar completed his masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, in 1900 and, despite some resistance from the Anglican church around the Catholic dogma of some parts of Cardinal Newman’s text, Elgar’s extraordinary work eventually came to be regarded as the greatest oratorio ever written by an Englishman (Handel, after all, was German). In the first of its two parts a dying man experiences his very last moments—a mini-drama of piousness, resolution, fear, terror, and ultimate faith. In the second part of the work, the soul of the departed, aided and counseled by his guardian angel, prepares for that great moment, both inspiring and horrifying, when he will come into the presence of God to be judged.
The musical language of the work is to some degree familiar to anyone who knows the Enigma Variations, composed just a year before, but here it has acquired a degree of refinement, subtlety and orchestral finesse that is only hinted at in the earlier work. And make no mistake about it, this drama of the human soul is as varied and thrilling as any opera. Elgar has fashioned a drama out of Newman’s poem that places it not only at the height of the oratorio repertory, but even, as has often been pointed out, in the same company with Wagner’s Parsifal.
The three soloists appearing with the orchestra, Robert Murray, Madeleine Shaw and Derek Welton, are renowned in England for their performances of this masterpiece, and, the Chorus pro Musica joins the BPO once again for this final performance of the year. Absolutely not to be missed!
photo credit — Stu Rosner