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Philharmonia & Bach Choir (Lucas Elkin reviews)

Roderick Williams –  Cusp (world premiere); text by Rommi Smith
Edward Elgar  – The Dream of Gerontius; text by Cardinal John Henry Newman
Jennifer Johnstone (Mezzo soprano)
Daniel Norman (Tenor)
Roderick Williams (Baritone)
The Bach Choir
The Philharmonia Orchestra
David Hill

A near capacity crowd filled The Royal Festival Hall for a pairing of old and new. Roderick
Williams’s Cusp is conceived as a curtain-raiser for Elgar’s oratorio and takes death as its
main theme, though this time of a young person, rather than old. It is a loosely cyclical work
invoking the seasons to weave together a narrative, incorporating recordings of hospital
sounds at its opening, the pinging of machines later being passed skilfully round the
orchestra often underpinned by vast string chords. Later on the tone gives way to
asymmetric rhythmic passages interspersed with intense lyricism, whilst Roderick Williams –
soloist as well as composer here – has occasional, precise punctuations of sung text.
Rommi Smith’s intelligently worked text, based on sources ranging from interviews with
Bach Choir members and their experiences of death, through to Shakespeare and Dylan
Thomas helps make this an entirely relatable work: the explored emotions are common to

David Hill chose to segue this immediately into the Prelude, delivered with great poise and
delicacy, even in the fortissimo passages. I particularly noticed the upper strings sul G
moments and the effortless rich tone they produced. Daniel Norman’s Gerontius was a masterful
performance, wringing in turn every ounce of angst, anger, peace and tranquillity from the
immensely challenging score. Roderick Williams’s Priest was delivered with bravura, whilst
the final ascent through D major at the end of Part I was as finessed as I have ever heard it.
Jennifer Johnstone gave us a warm, lyrical Angel in Part II, beautifully guiding Gerontius
through his journey after death whilst the Bach Choir – heavenly in Part I’s Kyrie Eleison –
crackled and fizzed with irreverent relish in the fiendishly difficult fugue-type sequence as
Demons in Part II.

Under David Hill’s baton, this masterful performance was everything The Dream should be:
at times music that pushed you into the back of your seat, whilst at others music that kept
you on the edge of it.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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