Rattle’s Return Results in a Gerontius ‘Worth your Memory’

12/09/2015

Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC Proms Youth Choir, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 8.9.2015 (GR)

Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Proms Youth Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The launch of the 2015/16 Birmingham International Concert Season coincided with the commencement of the celebrations for Symphony Hall’s 25th anniversary next year. The welcome a buzzing full house gave Sir Simon Rattle showed the affection West Midlands faithfuls have for the maestro who takes up his role as Musical Director of the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017. The single work on the programme was one indelibly linked to England’s Second City, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which was initially commissioned for the 1900 Birmingham Festival. Rattle was revisiting a work he recorded with the CBSO and Chorus for EMI in 1986, six years into his unforgettable eighteen year tenure with that orchestra. How would it compare twenty-nine years later on Sept 8th 2015?

Based upon the poem of the same name by Cardinal John Henry Newman, Elgar’s Op 38 is an ionic choral composition, akin to a dramatic oratorio; it was a personal avowal of Elgar’s catholic faith, identifying himself as Gerontius – an Everyman on his death bed, whose soul subsequently journeys towards the afterlife, judgement and on to purgatory. As the Prelude to Part 1 got under way, Rattle immediately displayed two of his noted qualities – precise attention to detail and a command of everything in front of him. He was at one with the players of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, identifying the succession of motifs that percolate the piece. In the opening ‘Judgement’ theme, the violas suggested the uncertainty that a dying Gerontius faced, a fear of the unknown. This outer-world experience spread to the whole string section, continuing the enigmatical dreams that flashed through our eponymous hero’s mind, feelings graphically conveyed by the additional motifs of ‘Fear’, ‘Prayer’ ‘Sleep’ and ‘Despair’. The later ‘Committal’ theme received some majestic Elgarian warmth from the woodwinds and as Rattle moved the music inevitability forward, he also infused an uprising sensation. And after the climax, the ritardando return to the strains of ‘Judgement’ strains that close the Prelude was well judged by Rattle.

How does the tenor express the ‘strange innermost abandonment’ envisaged by Newman’s verse in Gerontius’ opening Jesu, Maria – I am near to death? The prayers of Toby Spence were I thought certainly intense, urgently pleading to his Master. As he grew weaker anxiety took over and his bedside companions prayed with him, Kyrie eleison, words underlining the Catholicism of the text. The BBC Proms Youth Choir gave him a soothing taste of what might be expected on the other side – an ethereal yet supportive entreaty with only the lower strings to back them up. Resolving to ‘play the man’ Spence embarked upon the impassioned Sanctus fortis. The tenor was certainly ardent, burning with conviction, without ‘one foot withdrawn’ as RVW once remarked regarding this solo; his diction throughout was good, although I thought the final Sanctus fortis did not quite match the score’s piangendo, and overall I would have liked to have seen a bit more light and shade to emphasise the nuances of the text. Now from the waters in a saving home was given a devout litaneutical slant by the Semi-Chorus with responses from the main choral body. This heralded a poignant Novissima hora est from Spence, and following the gorgeous reprise of the ‘Sleep’ theme on the cellos, his final ‘Into thy hands’ heralding the final earthly consciousness of Gerontius, exquisite. Solid brass chords introduced The Priest sung by Roderick Williams. Although a baritone I thought his rendition of Proficiscere, anima Christiana, progressing Gerontius towards judgement was first class, his command to ‘Go forth upon thy journey’ based on the ‘Committal theme suiting his tessitura perfectly. Williams was everything the role demanded – imposing, exalted and consolatory. With the choir joining in Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels and harmonised by the organ, there was a triumph of sound to close Part 1.

With no applause or interval (only the minimum of breaks for the Angel to enter) the contrast in the music of the Prelude to Part 2 was made even more transparent, Rattle urging the VPO strings to caress their muted instruments to produce an atmosphere synonymous with a peaceful Elysium. This floating sensation was mirrored by Spence’s I went to sleep: his head was in the clouds, anticipating his arrival at the throne of God with a ‘strange refreshment’, a buoyancy and slight wonderment that Earth’s burden had been lifted. Yet Gerontius is not alone and hearing a ‘heart-subduing melody’ his Guardian Spirit arrives: Magdalena Kožená dressed all in white with sleeves adjoining the bodice to replicate her wings. A singer of note, I had looked forward to her contribution, but her My work is done with its ravishing Alleluia’s was uninspiring to say the least, despite some solid underpinning by the double basses. Consequently one half of the engaging duologue that dominates the first half of Part 2 was not the ‘conscious communion’ that Rattle, along with the ever sonorous VPO tones, were fluently striving to achieve. Also, with the latter stages often likened to an operatic duet, sincerity remains paramount, but with excessive left hand movements, Kožená overdid it. However the audience were brought back to earth (or should that be hell?) with the emergence of some ‘hungry and wild’ demons, only too willing to steal a defenceless soul with their Demons’ Chorus. The Low-born clods of brute earth from these Demons was true to the sour and uncouth nature of Newman’s text, fiendish and contemptuous. The choir were far removed from the ‘drawing-room ballad scenario’ accusation by Elgar at that dodgy first rehearsal in 1900! Well prepared by their Chorus Master Simon Halsey, the choir surmounted the complex fugue and variants. In itself this is an amazing achievement considering this (together with its repeat airing at Prom 75 on Sept 11th) is their one and only performance of the year and that the singers hail from as far afield as Ulster and South Wales. The second bite of the Demons was even more venomous, complete with some highly derisory repetitions of ‘Ha! Ha!’ accentuated by some solid brass and shrill woodwinds – exhilarating stuff. Then as the Angel tells Gerontius he will see his maker for one moment, I was expecting to be on the edge of my seat, but Kožená was far from radiant, although we did have the richness of the VPO cellos. Likewise during the Angel’s tale of a Mortal – the stigmata of St Francis of Assisi – only the cello accompaniment stood out. The Choir of Angelicals, the least and most childlike of the sons of God, glided in with the first airing of Praise to the Holiest in the height. As Elgar’s friend A J Jaeger had said ‘It is as if one of the gates of heaven were opened…’ and the combination of delicate sopranos and the appropriate harp accompaniment, paradise was near. Before entering the House of Judgement, Spence was flooded with a ‘grand mysterious harmony’ – both wondrous and anticipatory, as was the swell Rattle generated in the VPO. The ‘Praise to the Holiest’ welcome was one to remember, the huge numbers of the choir (sufficient to do Mahler 8) demonstrating enormous commitment, their 3:4 time embracing the Trinity. The busy multi-layered animato section allowed Rattle to build the momentum in a controlled manner to the momentous eight part C Major conclusion. It proved what a fantastic job Halsey had done. The Angel of Agony requires a basso cantante and for a baritone Williams coped admirably with Jesu! By that shuddering dread. He was again a commanding presence, excellent diction and amplitude, even for the low phrase ‘by that mount of sins’; his ‘Hasten, Lord their hour’ and the trumpet section held my attention. It transfixed Spence too, his fear graphically conveyed on the oboe and by his I go before my Judge. Now the Voices on Earth seemed very distant for Be Merciful, Gerontius had travelled far, but Kožená’s ‘Alleluia’ was an anti-climax. Oh for a Connolly or a Coote! The Moderato e solenne section lived up to its name, Rattle administering an uplifting crescendo, a shattering blast from the percussion section as Gerontius sees God and a riveting molto allargando leading to a dramatic Take me away from Spence. The Souls in Purgatory devoutly sang the psalm Lord, Thou hast been our refuge, the double basses rumbling behind them, emphasising the superb acoustics of Symphony Hall. One of Elgar’s most beautiful melodies introduces the Angel’s Softly and gently, but Kožená did little to guarantee a swift and tranquil purgatory. The choir ensured an inspirational conclusion, glorified by the final Praise to the Holiest and a cementing Amen.

Attending a performance of Gerontius is always an experience and this one was no exception. Elgar fittingly dedicated the work AMDG (Ad majorem dei gloriem/To the Greater Glory of God); he also quoted Ruskin: This is the best of me, for the rest I ate and drank, but this I saw and knew: this, if anything, is worth your memory. Above all it was Rattle who ensured that it was an evening ‘worth your memory’.

Geoff Read

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