REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The Dream Of Gerontius, York Minster

Alex Ashworth: “Wonderful, resonant bass”. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

The Dream Of Gerontius, University of York Choir and Symphony Orchestra, York Minster, June 14

THE Dream Of Gerontius opened with a well-judged expansive orchestral Prelude; the ghost of Wagner ever present in the slowly unfolding haunting melodic lines.

The performance reminded me how surreal this instrumental journey is, quite radical really, as it closes in to greet Gerontius on his deathbed.

Joshua Ellicott’s dramatic opening Jesu, Maria, I Am Near To Death was imbued with both frailty and trepidation. Naturally, most of the vocal responsibility lies with the tenor role of Gerontius, and Mr Ellicott was simply imperious. He strove to deliver an unforgettable emotional and spiritual journey, one rich in dramatic effect and emotional depth.

The somewhat chilling opening aria was both passionate and persuasive, and the delivery of the later Sanctus Fortis, a musical statement of faith, was both powerful and compelling. Particularly musically pleasing was the way the opening aria bled into, seeped into the Kyrie Eleison.

It is not until the end of Part 1 that Gerontius is joined by the Priest, a wonderful, resonant bass, Alex Ashworth, who leads the processional Go Forth Upon Thy journey, Christian Soul. The closing…Through The Same, Through Christ Our Lord also had a wonderful, satisfying musical landing.

Part 2 opens with the Soul of Gerontius singing I Went To Sleep; And Now I Am Refreshed. Mr Ellicott delivered this beautifully, aided by the clarity of texture – muted strings, woodwind gentle, overlapping commentary.

Mezzo soprano Kitty Whately proved to be a worthy (female) Angel, the singer displaying a lovely, velvety tone. Her aria Softly And Gently was just heavenly. The dramatic highlight was, of course, when Gerontius sees God; a silence of shock and awe, orchestral explosion. Very effective indeed, particularly in this acoustic.

The orchestra and choir (often singing very demanding vocal lines such as Praise To The Holiest In The Height) were excellent throughout. The Minster acoustic is and was problematic; it tends to take more than it gives. Conductor John Stringer managed these huge forces plus soloists in this acoustic with exceptional musical skill, and a full-capacity audience seemed to agree.

Review by Steve Crowther