Review: Choral Society Concert

The Dream of Gerontius – Sunday 13th March 2016

A European wisecrack once remarked that “there were no great English composers”.  An interesting remark.  Assuming we forgive him for forgetting the early masters such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and Henry Purcell, and more recently composers such as Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, he couldn’t be forgiven for ignoring the music of Sir Edward Elgar.

There is much pomp and circumstance made of Elgar’s more popular works, but as good as they are, it’s actually the masterpieces such as the violin concerto, the piano quintet, the cello concerto, his first symphony and The Dream of Gerontius that put him in the Premier League of the greatest composers of all time.  Gerontius was premiered (poorly as it happens) in Birmingham Town Hall in 1900.  It was under-rehearsed and although later performances in Germany and Austria finally did the work justice, the initial experience for Elgar must have been somewhat disheartening. There can be no question, however, that if Elgar had been in Marlborough College Chapel for the annual Choral Society performance this year, such gloom would have been long forgotten.

Make no mistake, Gerontius is a challenging work, and Marlborough College Choral Society worked themselves to the bone to grapple with the complexity which presents itself in Elgar’s score. Full marks then to choirmaster and conductor, Alex Hodgkinson, for bringing together such a magnificent performance. The choir sounded in good heart, bolstered by the excellent Chapel Choir of the College and the fine professional orchestra assembled by Alex Arkwright and Adrian Eales (for whom the latter should be given a special mention as this was his final performance as leader of the orchestra after over 35 years of dedicated service as Head of Strings at the College).

Gerontius needs good soloists too, and in this performance they were excellent, brilliantly led by the dashing James Oxley (tenor), the expressive Susanna Spicer (mezzo) and the suave Robert Rice (baritone) alongside.  David Bednall provided excellent support as a répétiteur during rehearsals and then lent his superb skills as an organist for the performance, with Marlborough College’s Beckerath organ adding that truly Elgarian ‘grandiose’ feel to proceedings.

Altogether then, a fabulous experience which the packed chapel clearly thoroughly enjoyed. Bravo one and all, particularly conductor Alex Hodgkinson who led with true distinction.

Philip Dukes
Artistic Director

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