Edinburgh International Festival Review: The Closing Concert – Royal National Orchestra of Scotland with guests

Sir Andrew Davis and the RSNO perform the closing concert at Usher Hall. PIC: Andrew Perry/Edinburgh International Festival.

Royal National Orchestra of Scotland with guests

Truly, programming Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius should provide a transcendent ending to an important festival. So, with a full house, terrific singers, a massive choir and orchestra and an excellent conductor, with a text ready to wake up any Christian at half mast, we met Gerontius. Cardinal Newman’s poem has long inspired Elgar’s obsession with words and a resulting endless gestation in the staging of the work. Géronte, devout and fearful and facing death, confronts the ferment of his soul and embraces the ferocious declarations of a priest. An angel, both soothing and alarming, escorts her to meet her God. Ultimately, the music helps us assume that he finds peace in the afterlife.

Elgar, however, sets up a riddle. He demands a heroic voice and superhuman stamina from his title tenor role, while Newman’s Gerontius is frail, profoundly human – perhaps we could meet him on the Sunday bench next door. He then surrounds his anti-hero with scene-stealing partners, a priest with extremely dramatic music and an angel whose lyrics assume the embodiment of female comfort.

The performance was beautifully conducted by Sir Andrew Davis who cares so deeply and meticulously for this repertoire. The RSNO was splendid. Andrew Staples in the title role sang with self-effacing sensitivity, yearning and a sense of wonder. The text, boring to Protestant ears in its serious pomp, has been impeccably rendered. Baritone Iain Paterson, perhaps as a splendid statement – Edinburgh Festival, deeply English music – wore a kilt and sang with rich, startling authority. Karen Cargill’s angel was a powerhouse of hovering hallelujahs and somber warnings. The choirs, disciplined and eloquent, were angels in their own right.

In the end, however, the work showed its flaws, orchestrally long and serious, overwhelmed by the endless flow of unctuous words. Expressions of faith, these days filled with doubts, must be much more convincing.

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