Ex Cathedra performs Elgar's Dream
Nov 25 2009 By Jill Robinson
Has the ‘early music’ movement caught up with Elgar, asks Jill Robinson.
This weekend sees the culmination of possibly the most ambitious project in Ex Cathedra’s 40 years of music-making in Birmingham: the first “period” performances of Elgar’s masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius.
Following Messiah and Elijah this is the third of its 40th anniversary collaborations with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which is at the forefront of historically informed performance practice.
Its players have been actively involved in researching the instruments used in 1900 and exploring the most appropriate playing styles.
So, the OAE will use narrow-bore trombones – including one owned originally by Elgar himself which was restored earlier this year, along with one owned by Gustav Holst – piston valve horns and gut strings, and the sound will be quite different from an orchestra playing on modern instruments.
In addition, the playing and singing will have less vibrato than most people would think was in use around 1900 but there will be more portamenti and a much more flexible approach to tempi.
But why has a choir internationally acclaimed for Renaissance, baroque and contemporary repertoire decided to put one of the greatest and largest choral masterpieces of the 19th century at the heart of its 40th Anniversary Season?
Ex Cathedra has its roots in Birmingham and the West Midlands and it wanted to celebrate not only its 40th birthday but the city’s great choral tradition, which it is committed to taking forward in the 21st century.
In the two years leading up to its anniversary season, it has performed two of the three major choral works which helped to make the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival the most prestigious in Britain – Messiah in 1784 and Elijah in 1846.
The Dream of Gerontius is the third work in that trilogy and arguably the most significant for Birmingham’s choral reputation.
Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra’s founder and director, is passionate about Gerontius and its importance for the choir.
He describes this weekend’s concerts as “a great cutting-edge ‘early music’ project.”
He has always sought to capture for modern audiences the sound world, style and spirit of music from other ages, other countries and even continents.
Over the years, he has spent time poring over manuscripts in the French Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and has been to Mexico and Bolivia to discover more about Latin American Baroque, including visiting the jungles of Bolivia to see some of the many works which survive in the mission churches there.
Closer to home, in 2008 he and longstanding choir member Derek Acock undertook the reconstruction of Mendelssohn’s first edition of his oratorio Elijah, drawing on Derek’s extensive research into the first performance in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846.
And this year, Derek has once again been the key researcher on the Gerontius “period” performance project.
Members of Ex Cathedra have long been accustomed to Jeffrey’s passion for pushing the boundaries of theirexperience and expertise in his wide-ranging researches into the choral repertoire and his exploration of how it should or could be performed.
His decision to take a fresh look at the performance practice and style of Gerontius, however, challenged even them.
Have instruments and styles of playing and singing really changed that much over the past 100 years or so?
The answer is yes.
There is a mass of information relating to performance practice in 1900 and there is no doubt that instruments and styles have changed enormously.
However, Ex Cathedra is not aiming to recreate the performances of the early 1900s.
As Derek says: “We know that we cannot turn the clock back: however hard we may try, the concert halls of today will not have the same characteristics, and, much more importantly, the listeners will not have the same aural background to judge what they are hearing.
‘‘Our task is to find a sound and style which we believe is true to Elgar and his music.”
Jeffrey and Derek have immersed themselves in the life and music of Elgar over the past months, poring over his manuscripts and note books in the Elgar Birthplace Museum, near Worcester, and the autographed score and Cardinal Newman’s poem in the Birmingham Oratory.
They have visited key sites linked to the composer, reading the research findings of acknowledged Elgar experts such as Robert Philip and listening to old recordings.
Even though the recordings are later than the first performances of Gerontius, they are an invaluable resource.
As Jeffrey writes in his programme notes: “They give convincing examples of Elgar’s great attention to detail, tempo flexibility, the use of portamento and the sheer quality and freedom of the music making; its sensuousness and passion.”
The XL Anniversary Gerontius project has been a journey of discovery and Ex Cathedra hopes it can use fresh insights into this masterpiece to give a performance of which the composer would have been proud.
Elgar wrote on his score “This is the best of me”, and we want to be able to say of our performances “This is the best of us”.
* Ex Cathedra performs The Dream of Gerontius at Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday, November 28, at 7.30pm and Sunday at 4pm
(Box office: 0121 780 3333)