On a surprisingly chilly November evening, a sizeable audience assembled in the imposing setting of Tonbridge School Chapel for Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.
Conductor Robin Morrish eloquently dedicated the concert to Isabel Denny, a long-standing member of the choir who died earlier this year.
Robin conjured a lugubrious start from the orchestra. The wind playing was solid, but the strings brought a lovely depth on their entry. During the orchestra’s introduction, despite some stray tuning, it was clear that the evening’s concert was going to be more than satisfactory; in the dynamic range above mezzo-forte there was a wonderful sonority and great security.
Hugh Hetherington made a good Gerontius; he had a warm tone, accurate intonation and good diction. Robin Morrish managed the balance between solo and orchestra carefully. In the “Sanctis fortis”, Hugh was heartfelt. He did strain at the high notes, but this was very easy to forgive, as his performance was full of humanity and pathos.
Elgar warms the choirs up with gentle pianissimo legato. The Temenos Chamber Choir semi-chorus and the Philharmonic Choir both enunciated their words clearly from their first phrases. The impressive chapel had so far lent a warm bloom to the tone of the Tonbridge Philharmonic; the reverberation now provided a challenge to the musicians in the larger texture of “Lord deliver him”. Here, Robin and the Society produced a good ensemble where dynamic contrasts and rhythmic strands were all carefully outlined.
Baritone Piran Legg had a rich and authoritative tone, lending the priest appropriate solemnity. Joined by the two choirs, the balance between the singers and orchestra was again judged very well indeed. The Edwardian splendour of “Go in the name of Angels” was captured wonderfully.
After the Interval, Louise Winter (brought in at the last minute) sang the mezzo-soprano rôle of the Angel. It took her a while to settle; her diction, pitch and rhythm were not initially as secure as Hugh and Piran’s, but she always demonstrated a good sense of line and phrasing.
The Demons’ Chorus communicated a powerfully hellish wrath, competing on equal terms with the ferocious orchestra and overcoming the chapel’s lush acoustics. The intonation of the chorus suffered when the ladies sang whilst sitting. They quickly redeemed themselves with a “Praise to the Holiest” that was gloriously triumphant, joyfully negotiating the rhythmic hurdles.
The grand tradition of British amateur choral societies tackling the repertoire with gusto and strength is a long and noble one. Of all the great choral warhorses commonly performed, The Dream of Gerontius is arguably the most challenging. It took all of Elgar’s genius to set Newman’s solemn and mystic poem; the final score is rich in detail, complex and intricate. Robin’s expansive conducting sometimes encouraged a rather overly enthusiastic piano from his musicians, but his tempi were always well chosen. The result was musical and cohesive throughout; the combination of Elgar and the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society was a winner.