Ahead of our performance of it next week at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall we asked OAE Principal Oboe and Gerontius enthusiast Tony Robson about the piece:
The Elgar ‘Dream’ is new ground for the OAE and presents lots of challenges to the orchestra but I fully expect it to rise to those challenges with its usual enthusiasm and determination. We are lucky to have [ choir ] Ex Cathedra on board, as the choral writing in Gerontius is very demanding. It’s well known that the premiere of this work in Birmingham in 1900 (pictured) was little short of a disaster, the Chorus in particular being heavily castigated by the critics of the time. In their defence, there were particular difficulties which led to adequate preparation being well-nigh impossible; their excellent Chorus Master E. Swinnerton Heap suffered a fatal heart attack just months before the premiere and his tired and old replacement William Stockley was quite out of sympathy with both the content and demands of Elgar’s score. The composer and his publisher were both tardy in getting material out to the choir in good time and, unbelievably, the chorus only had their own single parts in their copies so that each section didn’t have the faintest idea what notes or rhythm their colleagues in the rest of the choir were singing! No wonder there were problems! We certainly won’t be having a repeat of that with our exceptional choir.
Orchestrally, Gerontius raises several issues that are not addressed in modern performances. Undoubtedly the use of historical instruments, even those of a mere 100 or so years ago will bring significant changes to the textures. The use of gut strings alone will have a vast impact not to mention the use of Elgarian woodwind and brass with their subtle differences which will greatly affect internal balances. Just as important are aspects of string technique such as portamento or ‘sliding’. Many hours of discussion have taken place already, (very useful for passing the time on 6 hour coach journeys on tour!) Maggie Faultless (our leader for Gerontius) is gleaning information from sources far and wide, and we are particularly fortunate in having Elgar’s own recorded performances available which of course give invaluable pointers as to how things went. Of course, the use of vibrato is another large topic, but you can be sure that when Elgar writes at a particularly impassioned moment in the elegiac slow movement of the 2nd Symphony the word “Vibrato” in both violin parts, it surely speaks volumes as to the amount that was being used elsewhere!
All in all, I expect we shall be hearing something very familiar but differently, in a much leaner, more direct way, and hopefully with a few exciting revelatory moments that we’ve so far missed.
You can also listen to Tony talk about the piece on our podcast here
With thanks to the Elgar Birthplace Museum for the picture.