Daniel Barenboim’s Memorable Elgar Closes Musikfest Berlin 2016
Musikfest Berlin 2016  – Elgar: Andrew Staples (tenor), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Staatsopernchor, RIAS Kammerchor, Konzertchor und Jugendchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 19.9.2016. (JQ)
Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38
To close the 2016 Musikfest Berlin Daniel Barenboim conducted two performances of The Dream of Gerontius on consecutive evenings. This evening’s concert was the first of the pair.
It would be an understatement to say that this project was bedevilled by the withdrawal of soloists. Some days before the first performance it was announced that the scheduled Gerontius, Jonas Kaufmann had withdrawn due to illness. Then on the very day of the performance I learned that not only had Kaufmann’s intended replacement, Toby Spence, fallen victim to sickness but also that Sarah Connolly was indisposed and would be unable to sing the role of the Angel. Into their places stepped two more British singers, Andrew Staples and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. I guess that many people had booked tickets for this event, as had I, in anticipation of hearing Jonas Kaufmann essay – for the first time? – the role of Gerontius. Happily, for me Kaufmann had not been the only draw: the prospect of experiencing Daniel Barenboim conducting Elgar’s masterwork was enticing.
Fairly early in his podium career – in the 1970s – Barenboim conducted quite a number of works by Elgar. He accompanied his then wife, Jacqueline du Pré in the Cello Concerto; he was the conductor for Pinchas Zukerman’s memorable recording of the Violin Concerto (review); and I think I’m right in saying he also recorded both of the symphonies at around the same time. I don’t know to what extent Elgar’s music has featured in his repertoire since then but in 2013 he set down a recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin of the Second Symphony (review) and then in September 2015 he and the orchestra recorded the First Symphony. I have copies of both recordings and I find much to admire in them in terms both of the superb orchestral playing and of Barenboim’s searching and thoughtful conducting. Those CDs more than whetted my appetite to hear what he would make of Gerontius.
I’ve seen Barenboim conduct several times on television or DVDs but I’ve never previously had the chance to experience him conducting ‘live’. I came away from this concert with several impressions, the first of which was that for a musician – and for an orchestral player in particular – he must be a dream to follow. He is not at all showy in his style but, my goodness, his conducting is crystal clear. Even though he had his back to me the beat was clear at all times and every single one of his gestures made complete sense and was absolutely relevant. That’s not something you can say of all conductors, including some very distinguished ones. The second impression was that he had total command of the score and knew exactly what vision of it he wanted to communicate. Once or twice the speeds he adopted were not completely in accordance with “received tradition” but on the night all of his tempo selections seemed completely convincing. As examples, he rightly made rather more than many conductors do of the occasions near the start of the Demon’s Chorus when Elgar briefly marks the music largamente. Again, towards the end of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ he didn’t seem to make the animato as intense as many conductors do but even so the end of the section was thrilling. Furthermore, he demanded – and obtained – fastidious attention to detail in respect of dynamics. All of this – and much more – marked this out as a most thoughtful interpretation
It was obvious from the Prelude to Part I that this was to be a distinguished performance. The music was initially slow and solemn, as it should be, and then acquired just the right degree of urgency. I was delighted to see that Barenboim had divided the violins left and right – as Elgar would have expected in his day. Not only did this allow us to hear both violin parts with clarity but also it meant that the cellos, placed to the conductor’s left, and the violas, seated to his right, formed a rich core of sound at the centre of the orchestra. The quality of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s playing was glorious – as it was to be throughout the performance. Not only was the orchestra excellent when playing by itself – as in this Prelude and the Prelude to Part II – but also when accompanying the singing. The orchestral contribution to the lengthy dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel in Part II was as fine as I can ever recall hearing it. Daniel Barenboim has been at the helm of this orchestra since 1992 and, my goodness, the length and depth of that relationship is obvious in the rapport between conductor and players.
If Andrew Staples was daunted by the task of stepping into this performance at short notice – I suspect that both he and Miss Wyn-Rogers had very limited rehearsal time – it didn’t show. His voice may not be as refulgent as Kaufmann’s but it is clear, well focussed and, whilst essentially light in timbre, has a touch of steel to it. I haven’t previously heard him sing the role of Gerontius but I thought he was extremely convincing. Despite the likely lack of rehearsal I noticed only one brief moment in Part II where there was not complete accord between him and Barenboim – all this was evidence of a singer well experienced in the role and a master accompanist at work. I appreciated greatly the consistent clarity of diction that Staples displayed all evening and he had the necessary vocal ‘heft’ for such moments as ‘Take me away’ even if his voice didn’t open out as greatly at such points as some exponents of the role have managed. And his essential lightness of tone brought some significant dividends. In Part I Elgar requires his tenor to be able to summon up an almost heroic timbre at times yet, crucially, he must also suggest the frailty – and desperation – of an old man on his deathbed. This set of demands can sometimes defeat tenors but I thought that Andrew Staples did very well indeed in conveying the fragility of the dying Gerontius. Yet there was no lack of intensity in ‘Sanctus fortis’. In Part II he displayed no little subtlety and sensitivity during his exchanges with the Angel. This was a fine and convincing performance; no wonder the conductor embraced him warmly at the end.
If you ever have to replace a singer in the role of the Angel at short notice then your first call should be to Catherine Wyn-Rogers – if you hadn’t engaged her originally, of course. Only a few weeks ago she took part in a performance that I reviewed of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and I referred to her then as “ever-reliable”. Here was another example of her absolute professionalism. I’ve heard her sing the role of the Angel more than once in concert and on two recordings; never have I been disappointed. Tonight she brought to the performance all that experience in a reading that was highly communicative and finely nuanced. Miss Wyn-Rogers understands the role completely. Her delivery of ‘A presage falls upon thee’ was wonderfully expressive. A little later, at ‘Yes, for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord’ there was great inwardness to her singing. Best of all was her singing in the celebrated Angel’s Farewell. The orchestral introduction to this closing section was exquisitely moulded by Barenboim and his orchestra. Thus encouraged, Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang the solo with warmth, tenderness and eloquence. At the end, when all the principals had received bouquets Barenboim detached a single flower from his bouquet and presented it to Miss Wyn-Rogers in a courtly gesture that bespoke great respect
Thomas Hampson sang the roles of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. He was positioned centre stage immediately between the orchestra and the front row of the chorus. Not only was this a very practical idea – the bass or baritone soloist has only two fairly short solos and has to wait a long tome before singing either of them – but it worked in terms of symbolism. As the Priest the soloist leads the friends (the chorus) gathered round Gerontius’ death bed in the obsequies so it’s very fitting to place the soloist as a kind of primus inter pares. Hampson sang both his solos with great authority and very strong projection. I thought his approach was better suited to the Angel of the Agony; as the Priest he was, arguably, a little too stentorian. In the first of his solos I was slightly disconcerted by his enunciation of the text; the words seemed oddly accented. Perhaps Hampson was trying too hard to project the words? I noticed this tendency far less in his second solo.
The chorus was terrific throughout. I think it was the members of the RIAS Kammerchor who provided the semi-chorus; they did so to excellent effect. The full chorus made a splendid sound in passages such as ‘Go forth’ at the end of Part I and in ‘Praise to the Holiest’ in Part II. This latter chorus was conducted with great intelligence by Barenboim. The lengthy passages between the two great choral outbursts (‘Praise to the Holiest’) can sound dutiful. However, Barenboim ensured that all of Elgar’s many dynamic markings were scrupulously observed by the combined choirs and as a result the music came to life as it should. The Demon’s Chorus was marked by terrifically incisive choral singing. There was also plenty of sensitivity in the choral contributions; for example, as the Angelicals in the long lead-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ the ladies sang with pure, fresh tone. The chorus enunciated the English words very accurately. The choirs had clearly been trained expertly by their various chorus masters, led by Martin Wright of the Staatsoper.
My one disappointment was that an interval was taken between the two parts of the work. That used to be commonplace but in recent years most of the UK performances that I’ve attended have dispensed with an interval. Instead conductors tend to make a pause of just three or four minutes during which the female soloist takes her place on stage – and the audience is asked to refrain from applause. Sadly, a traditional interval was made this evening. By the time the audience had retaken their seats and the large number of performers had reassembled on the platform twenty-five minutes elapsed with an inevitable loss of tension and atmosphere. The interval was a misjudgement.
Overall, however, the performance was a conspicuous success. Setting the seal on the evening for me was the reception accorded to the performance and performers by the Berlin audience. I’ve had the good fortune to attend and to sing in many performances of this great work over the years and many people regard it as a quintessentially English work. I beg to differ. Even if Cardinal Newman’s Victorian words can poses an obstacle for non-English audiences Elgar’s music is more cosmopolitan than that. For one thing we should not forget the impact on him that Wagner’s music made and it’s surely no coincidence that tonight’s performance was conducted by a great Wagner interpreter. In any case, it was in Germany that The Dream of Gerontius received some of its earliest performances – and met with great acclaim. The conductor Julius Buths attended the work’s first performance in Birmingham in 1900. That performance was less than satisfactory but Buths was so impressed by what he heard that he was determined to play the piece in Germany, even to the extent of investing a significant amount of his own time and effort in translating the text into German. Buths led performances of Der Traum des Gerontius in Düsseldorf in 1901 and 1902. Elgar attended both performances and both he and the piece were acclaimed. I thought it was very fitting that for tonight’s performance Buths’ German translation was not only printed in the programme but also displayed in the form of surtitles during the performance. It was heartening to hear tonight’s audience give a most enthusiastic reception to Gerontius offering further proof that English music can indeed ‘travel’ – at least, so long as it’s in the right hands.
And tonight Elgar’s music was certainly in the right hands. Daniel Barenboim led a memorable account of The Dream of Gerontius. Dare we now hope that he will follow the symphonies by committing his interpretation of Gerontius to disc?