Lucerne Festival (7) – Swiss Mightily Impressed by Rattle’s Gerontius

14/09/2015

Elgar, The Dream of GerontiusVienna Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 13.9.2014 (JR)

Elgar:  The Dream of Gerontius

Sir Simon has been touring with this Gerontius taking it from Birmingham to the BBC Proms and now brought it to close the Lucerne Festival.

When a group of senior judges (Law Lords) have to give judgment in a case, they often start off by saying words along the lines of ‘I have had the benefit of reading the judgment of my learned friend and concur’.  For my part, I have not been able to avoid reading some reviews from those two concerts in England, and you, dear Reader, may have seen them too. So what more can I possibly add?  Perhaps, I may venture both a continental and a chorister’s perspective.

Many Swiss have never heard of Elgar and if they do know any of his works, it’s probably the Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance and possibly his cello concerto. Even my Swiss musical friends had not heard of The Dream of Gerontius and I had to explain to them that it is apparently, after Messiah, the most popular piece for choirs in the UK. That does not make the piece nearly as popular with the British public as Messiah, jam-packed as it is with tunes they know and love.  The Elgar Society is keen to promote performances of Gerontius abroad (they are understandably few and far between and not Box Office sure-fire hits) that they will make a limited but not ungenerous financial contribution to any choir in the event that the concert does in fact make a loss – but suspect that offer was not required for the Vienna Philharmonic.

I came to this performance with the particular perspective of a chorister: the amateur choir in Zurich (Gemischter Chor Zürich), with which I sing, is rehearsing Gerontius at this very moment for a performance in the Tonhalle Zurich on November 28th (and also in Basel on the day before, the 27th) and I travelled to Lucerne with a number of my singing colleagues. I had the prior benefit (or perhaps, the disadvantage) of listening to a number of illustrious recordings.

I was not previously aware of the BBC Proms Youth Choir. They were founded in 2012 to promote young singing talent. Scheduled to last several years (why not indefinitely, one asks) the project assembles good young singers from all over Britain to allow them to sing a major choral work with a top orchestra and conductor at a prestigious venue. In previous years these included A Child of Our Time, War Requiem and A Sea Symphony.  The singers this year were drawn from the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus, the University of Birmingham Voices, the Ulster and Hallé Youth Choirs, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Quay Voices at Sage Gateshead. I think there may have been more of them in Birmingham and the Albert Hall, about 130 of them made it over to Lucerne. Their average age seemed to be in the mid-twenties, heart-warming to see so many good young choristers.

A Gerontius aficionado told me that Roderick (‘Roddy’) Williams would make a fine Priest, and he wasn’t wrong. The part of the Priest in Part I suits his voice better than for the Angel of the Agony in Part II (some conductors have used two singers), and Williams was not aided by the conductor having him placed him very high up next to the organ console, visually most impressive, but vocally this demanded extra volume which Williams could not maintain.

Toby Spence impressed with intonation and diction but I never thought of him as a man dying or dead, there was little emotion in what should be a heartfelt delivery. As other reviewers have pointed out, he lacks the volume for a stirring ‘Sanctus Fortis’.

Magdalena Kožená was unsure whether or not to keep her hands down but she looked and occasionally sounded nervous, she lacked the composure and warmth I would like to hear when my time comes to meet the Angel, though it was a lovely dress. Kožená’s voice at the very top was strained and edgy and I was not surprised when yet again she took the lower option at ‘Alleluia’.  There are several better Angels around nowadays, even if we cannot bring back Dame Janet Baker.

The choir was magnificent throughout, both in the hushed passages (particularly the semi-chorus), the demons’ chorus and the grand eight-part chorales. I know the tricky passages of the score and they overcame them all with apparent ease – no doubt assisted by some very expert tutelage from Simon Halsey.

There was no interval, which I think aids the work. It was a pity that the BBC insisted on an interval at the Proms.

It should come as no surprise that an orchestra of the calibre of the Vienna Philharmonic can master Elgar and sound as they all grew up within sight of the Malvern Hills (not all the players are Austrian, of course); they were superb throughout, from the rich and glorious strings to the emphatic brass. They thrilled just before the tenor’s cry of ’Take me away’! Rattle knows the score backwards, having recorded it back in the mid-Eighties with Dame Janet Baker, John Shirley Quirk, John Mitchinson and the CBSO.

This concert brought this year’s ever splendid and very well attended Lucerne Summer Festival to a fine close. I attended seven concerts in all, of those only one got a standing ovation – yes, it was this one. The Swiss were impressed by the moving performance and they were won over by the often ecstatic quality of the work, almost an English Parsifal.

Thank you, Sir Simon, for bringing the work to the continent.  My choir has a hard act to follow, but we’ll try.

John Rhodes

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