United KingdomStrauss, Elgar Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), The Bach Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra, David Hill (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.2.2014 (RB)
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
David Hill is the musical director of the Bach Choir but he is also an ex-student at Chetham’s School of Music and is now a governor at the school. He has been a pivotal figure in bringing these great musical institutions together. This concert featured two late-Romantic works depicting death and transfiguration or resurrection.
Tod und Verklärung is Strauss’ second tone poem and was composed in 1889 when the composer was just 25. It is in one movement but has four discrete sections: an opening Largo which features an irregular rhythmic figure in strings and timpani; an Allegro molto agitato representing the battle between life and death; a meno mosso where the dying man’s life passes before him; and a final moderato where the transfiguration of the title takes place. Strauss remarked on his deathbed: “Dying is just as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration”.
Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra played with a maturity and professionalism well beyond their years. The irregular pulse of the opening successfully depicted the faltering heartbeat of the dying artist while the arching woodwind and violin solos over harp accompaniment were exceptionally fine. The transitions in the work were navigated expertly and cleanly with the music moving seamlessly from feverish adrenaline fuelled anxiety to childhood reminiscence and romantic rapture. The final section had breadth and splendour and there were some blazing, effulgent sounds from the brass section. This was a remarkable opening from such a young group of players.
At the end of the score of The Dream of Gerontius Elgar wrote, “This is the best of me” – few would now dispute that this work is the composer’s masterpiece. The work sets Cardinal Newman’s poem of the same name to music and depicts the prayers of a dying man and his passage to the afterlife. The work is replete with allusions to Catholic theology and Dante’s Divine Comedy but, like Bach’s great choral works, it has a universal human quality which transcends its religious origins. One thing which always strikes me when I listen to Gerontius is the beauty of the words which Cardinal Newman uses and the extraordinary way in which Elgar adds depth and colour to the language.
Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra did an excellent job in introducing us to the principal motifs in the opening Prelude and the cello section and cello solo were particularly fine. Andrew Staples has a gorgeous, silky smooth tenor voice and is able to float up to the upper register notes with effortless ease. He is an outstanding Gerontius and, on the evidence of this concert, stands comparison with the greatest interpreters. He demonstrated commendable flexibility of phrasing and responsiveness to the words of the poem in the opening section – for example there were some gorgeous colour changes in “I am near to death”. I wondered if the opening of the ‘Sanctus fortis’ section might have been even more arresting but Staples injected enormous energy and vocal heft into the subsequent stanzas. Chetham’s proved themselves highly responsive accompanists, particularly in the section beginning “And crueller still, A fierce and restless fright begins to fill, The mansion of my soul”. The two choirs kept the contrapuntal choral lines clear while at the same time bringing out the highly expressive and lyrical side to the music. There were also some beautifully judged antiphonal responses just before the end of the first section. Roderick Williams did a superb job reciting the final blessing, “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”. His sonorous voice filled the hall but without sacrificing beauty of tone and his diction was exceptionally fine.
Jennifer Johnston joined the assembled forces for Part 2 in the role of the Angel. She brought vocal heft and rich tone colour to the role and her diction was excellent. Like Staples she was also very responsive to the language and she has a wide vocal range, although a couple of the upper register notes sounded a little strained. Johnston and Staples brought the opening dramatic dialogue vividly to life, and the duet which begins, “A presage falls upon thee” was a moment of pure rapture. The elements of threat and menace were conveyed well with the approach of the demons although the balance between the chorus and orchestra was not quite right and some of the vocal writing was drowned out. However, the subsequent taunting of the demons and peals of demonic laughter were brilliantly realised. The performance of “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” was glorious with the sound from the assembled forces completely engulfing the Royal Festival Hall. Roderick Williams brought weight and gravitas to the role of the Angel of the Agony while Andrew Staples demonstrated an intensity of feeling in his final solo. Jennifer Johnston lent tenderness and warmth to the Angel’s Farewell.
Bravo to all the performers for giving us an evening of high quality music making.