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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Victorian Catholic Dream

MSO’s Classical Season Finale

dewaart
Edo de Waart
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Edward Elgar’s monumental The Dream of Gerontius is a repertory staple in Britain, but is not often heard in the U.S. Before last weekend, the last Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performance was in 1980. Though the composer bristled at labeling the piece an oratorio, it has soloists and chorus. The text is adapted from a long poem written in 1865 by British Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, about a dying man’s dream of judgment in the afterlife.

Composed just a year after his well-known Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius is Elgar at the height of his powers. Its chromaticism and romantic spirituality are reminiscent of Wagner’s Parsifal. Many people find The Dream of Gerontius a penetrating experience. The music is continually beautiful, and at times thrilling. The text is a serious, thought-provoking consideration of Catholic-Christian theology, and the composer’s setting of it is masterful. I have to confess, though, that I have never warmed to the piece. I suppose I am put off by its pronounced Victorian qualities, present particularly in the poem itself.

I could certainly admire the MSO performance. A large scale, complex work such as this, with prominent vocal and choral aspects, essentially needs an experienced opera conductor, and Edo de Waart is an excellent one. As has been true in several other large romantic pieces, De Waart’s approach clarifies the music without adding any sentimental thickness of his own interpretation. The orchestra sounded wonderfully clear, creating dramatic climaxes without blurring of exact detail.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, with a largish and colorful voice, was well suited to the role of Gerontius, though his highest notes did not always live up to their promise. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was convincing as the Angel, with a glowing vocal timbre and expressive use of words. Baritone Luca Pisaroni sang his roles of the Priest and the Angel of Agony with attractive authority. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus was reliably good in this challenging work, which is for double chorus much of the time. A deliberate choice to use British diction might have elevated the choral performance.