Edinburgh is blessed with a number of very good amateur choirs, and the The Edinburgh Singers are amongst the best of them. They are celebrating their 65th birthday this year, and as part of their anniversary they perform perhaps the finest English choral work, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontious. The Edinburgh Singers are around 60 strong tonight, and backed by a 30 strong Sinfonia under the expert baton of Alistair Digges. They both sound superb in the acoustics of the splendid setting of Greyfriars Kirk.
The text of the Dream, written by John Henry Newman, is pretty turgid and very Catholic, so much so that the work was often banned in Protestant churches. It is rescued by the glorious music, some great arias for tenor, baritone and mezzo soprano, and great choruses for the choir. Elgar was very influenced by Wagner, and this shows in the wonderful music.
The principal singers were excellent. Ben Johnson (tenor), who sings Gerontious, lives up to his reputation as a former Ferrier award winner, and audience prize winner at the Cardiff Singer of the World. He has a clear melodic voice, and has no difficulty in reaching some of the difficult passages in Gerontious’s lament. He is well backed by James Arthur (baritone), a product of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who now sings widely in London. He has a clear authoritative baritone voice, and sounds splendid as the Priest and the Angel of Agony. Katie Schofield (mezzo soprano), who is known to Scottish audiences through her singing with the Dunedin Consort, is a very able last minute replacement for Edinburgh’s Catherine Backhouse.
Above all, the chorus are excellent and the Sinfonia sounds very professional. Indeed, this is a better Gerontious than delivered by many fully progressional orchestras and choirs. Greyfriars is the perfect setting for this deeply religious work, and it looks splendid in the evening sun as we leave to wend our way home uplifted by this glorious music.