Conductor Robert Hammersley promised us a ‘fantastic voyage’ in Ardingly College Chapel’s vast auditorium through ‘the most moving of all twentieth century choral works’. He commanded a right good crew of over 100 – the well drilled Ardingly Choral Society, Sussex Cantorum’s semi-chorus and Mid Sussex Sinfonia.
Scarcely a cough or dropped programme marked the awe with which this measured, powerful and spiritually charged performance was received. The distinguished soloists, with fine body language and diction, established a firm emotional grip as Adrian Thompson, in Part 1, shared Gerontius’s swift transition from firm faith to terror as his soul was bid farewell on his journey to the Judge by the reassuringly reverberant bass tones of the Priest (James Platt).
Part 2 of Elgar’s setting of Newman’s poem takes his Everyman figure from death to judgment to Purgatory, past demonic discord and angelical harmony. Such a voyage over penal waters requires a persuasively gentle, sympathetic but strong Angel as guide. Mezzo Jane Haughton, in her shimmering, unshowy gold dress, made this part all her own as surely as Janet Baker 50 years earlier, but with a smoother, less self-conscious intonation.
Unlike the 1900 premiere in Birmingham, this was a thoroughly rehearsed performance, with precise transitions from soloists to choir to orchestra. Thus Hammersley’s promise was unforgettably kept.
Review by: Melvyn Walmsley