Many of the finest moments of Edo de Waart’s reign as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra — from 1986 to 1995 — were concert versions of operas and performances of large late-Romantic works — not just familiar tone poems by Richard Strauss, but also seldom-heard pieces by the likes of Zemlinsky and Liadov.
With Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” which De Waart conducted here this past weekend, he managed to touch both bases, presenting a Victorian oratorio with distinctly operatic dimensions and intensity.
Composed in 1900 to a mystical poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Gerontius” depicts a dying soul’s journey before its Lord, in essence a powerful affirmation of faith in the Roman Catholic view of death and the afterlife.
The music is deeply felt and masterfully written, varied and rich in choral and orchestral invention. It surely is Elgar’s greatest and most personal work. The composer wrote “my own heart’s blood into the score,” he said in a letter to a friend. And it is often credited with bringing the oratorio back to life, which by Elgar’s time was suffocating under the sanctimonious weight of composers such as Stanford and Sullivan.
British audiences hear “Gerontius” almost as often as they hear “Messiah,” whereas performances in the U.S. are rare. The last time the Minnesota Orchestra played it was in 1907. (The Plymouth Music Series, however, presented the work in 1976 and 1990.)
The performance De Waart led Friday night at Orchestra Hall was warmhearted, dramatic and totally committed. It was not flawless, however. Peter Auty, the tenor singing the challenging role of Gerontius, had serious trouble negotiating the role’s upper range, resulting in occasional strangulated sounds that were hard to listen to. Auty was better — and more in command of his voice — in the softer, more reflective passages of Part Two.
Michelle Breedt, on the other hand, sang the mezzo role of the Angel with fine, clear tone and a warmly sympathetic manner, capping her achievement with a touching account of the Farewell. Singing in the first tier — an effective theatrical idea — baritone Andrew Foster-Williams brought a suave dignity to the roles of Priest and Angel of the Agony, though vocally this singer’s range is more suited to that of the Priest. (Occasional performances of this work use two singers — probably a better idea.)
The Minnesota Chorale, prepared by Kathy Saltzman Romey, sang with compelling urgency and maximum clarity and with just the right sneer in their tone for their portrayal of the Demons.
At all times the conductor showed a strong feeling for Elgar’s long lines and surging emotions. This is a work De Waart obviously cherishes. He recorded it not long ago with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. It would be to our benefit if he conducted here more often.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.