The "Angel's Farewell" in Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" is one of the great quiet endings in all of music. Heartbreaking in its intensity and suffused as it is in a radiant love that looks both backward and forward, it is the kind of conclusion thThe "Angel's Farewell" in Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" is one of the great quiet endings in all of music. Heartbreaking in its intensity and suffused as it is in a radiant love that looks both backward and forward, it is the kind of conclusion that we don't want ever to end. It's also the kind of conclusion that is not easy for an orchestra, a huge chorus and a mezzo-soprano soloist to bring off. Unless they're led by a conductor who is utterly convinced of the music's greatness, this heartwarming and dramatic work can seem like the musical equivalent of dishwater.
David Zinman had never led "The Dream of Gerontius" before last night's performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And if he gets additional opportunities to conduct this huge work, his performance will probably get even better. But the way he conducted not only the work's final moments but also the approximately 100 preceding ones bespoke a personal identification with this great music that was most persuasive. Other Elgarians could perhaps quibble with a point here and there -- one suspects that Elgar meant the demonic scherzo near the beginning of Part II to have an almost playful quality that escapes Zinman as it escapes most conductors -- but his music making was passionate, precise and urgent.
Tenor John Aler sang the part of Gerontius with his customary ardor, intelligence and superb diction. If he does not currently gauge the death of Gerontius (at least that of his body in Part I) with the kind of control that Peter Pears exhibits on his recording, he made one continually interested in the character and made one believe in the depths and heights of his feelings.
Unfortunately, mezzo-soprano Anne Howells' radiant appearance in a white dress did not compensate for an inferior portrayal of Gerontius' Guardian Angel. Howells sometimes seemed as if she was crooning the role rather than singing it. Although she is British and (according to the program notes) has had success with the role in her native country, it was difficult to make out her words (particularly in her lower register), and her singing lacked the sheer beauty it needed to be convincing.
Elgar himself once remarked that the role of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony -- except for the demands of the language -- really required foreign-born bassos with their larger, darker voices. He would have been very pleased, one thinks, with the performance of Michael George, who sang these parts with remarkable power, projection and beauty.